Short Fiction by Aliyah Keshani
He puts down the bottle of Glenfiddich and waits for the wind to still. Then he reaches for the Dictaphone.
‘Good evening –’ He stops the tape. Too formal. He rewinds it back to the beginning, hits record again. ‘Hi. My name is Benjamin Ridley. I’m twenty-seven years old.’
Why does his voice sound like that? So daft?
‘It’s ten past midnight on the sixth of September and…this is it. It’s going to happen – it’s supposed to happen – in the next hour. To me, to all of us.’ He waits a moment. ‘I . . . I wanted to say a few things . . . ’
His head teems with words but nothing more will come out. After a while, he switches off the tape and lights a Marlboro instead.
He’s not thought about lighting up before, the sound it makes. The grating of the lighter as he thumbs the wheel. It’s like something being chopped – celery, maybe. The cigarette sparks up, fizzing with every drag. Out whispers the smoke and under that, under the sound of his breath, he can hear his insides wheeze just a little. There’s a rattle under his ribs he’s never noticed before, not even once.
He’s not been in the shed since Mum left, a long time ago now. Half of the living room has ended up here – sofa, coffee table, that ugly rug. Dad was always useless at getting rid of things. He runs his hands up and down the sofa arms, spilling ash into the creases. The leather is rough with pin-prick holes from where the cat used to go at it. Dad would get so mad; he’d aim a kick and she’d scram up the stairs three-at-a-time to the loft. Whatever happened to her in the end? Disappeared the way cats do.
The rest of the shed hasn’t changed much. Same old crap – rusty bikes, skateboards, broken-down lawnmower. He picks up his cricket bat, the grip all grey and flabby and the wood split from the sweet spot down to the toe. He’d got his highest score with it, 56 not out. Used to have to drag it with both hands over the grass just to get to the crease. And now, now it doesn’t weigh a thing.
He reaches up with it, pushes at the light bulb dangling from the ceiling. The bulb swings to and fro, and he nudges it into a circle. It’s good to watch. Therapeutic. The chord could snag, pull the bulb down – pull the whole roof down. Still, there are worse ways to go.
Instead, he watches it swing its orbit. The shadows shift up and down the walls, spiders scuttle away. And, outside, the moths come bumping into the window with their soft, furry heads.
It’s so quiet. After all the panic, who would have guessed it would end like this?
Everyone else is on the hill, waiting for it to happen. He could have stayed with them, could have tried harder. He’d gone along in the afternoon, helped set up the speakers and screen, cordoned off the mixing desk. He’d manned one of the gates when they’d opened the park too, watched the neighbourhood stream into the grounds. It was how he’d run into Amanda and Jill, Mo and Siobhan, all dressed up for the night. He’d not seen them since leaving the company, and they’d insisted he join them. So he’d gone along, sat halfway up the hill in his cruddy jeans and hoodie, and watched Toy Story on the big screen. He hadn’t chosen it but the film had got more votes than Singing in the Rain and Bugsy Malone put together. And with a bottle of white and the breeze and the birds, the sky changing colours up above, he had to admit it was kind of beautiful. The kids were noisy, though. Running around, rolling down the hill and shrieking the way that kids do. But he hadn’t minded. No-one had.
Chubs turned up half-way through the film. He struggled up the hill with a cooler box in one hand and a hamper in the other. An old Indian couple shuffled up the path behind him. It was funny; he’d worked with Chubs straight out of university and right up until the redundancy. Never once in those five years had he imagined that Chubs had parents. But there they were, dressed up and everything. His dad wore a grey suit, handkerchief poking out of the front pocket. He was a tall, thin man, white hair combed into a neat side parting. Chubs’ mum was just like him – small and plump and grinning.
Ben had helped her shake out a large plastic mat and spread it over the ground. There were specks of mildew on the corners; she said she’d cut it from an old shower curtain. Very good to reuse. And on the YouTube, one can find all the videos on how to do. It is really quite something, ha?
He’d smiled and nodded but hadn’t known what to say. He could only think of the junk in his house and how pointless it was to try and save any of it now.
He chain-smoked on the edge of the group, catching occasional strands of conversation while Chubs’ mum opened the hamper. She laid out one Tupperware after another crammed with samosas and bhajias, half-melted KitKats, scotch eggs, Bombay mix and Wotsits, and a paper bag full of Pick ’n Mix. It was why they were late, Chubs explained, his mum hadn’t known what to bring.
The rest of group dived right in and thanked her with their mouths full, praising the food while she chuckled with delight. She forced a plate on him too, piled high with fishcakes and Hula Hoops, but he couldn’t eat. Instead, he swigged from the wine, remembering too late that it had been meant for general consumption.
Towards the end of the meal, Chubs’ mum brought out one final container. She told him it was a special dish – Chub’s favourite. Of course, she didn’t call him Chubs; Bhavik. It was Bhavik’s favourite dish. Inside were warm buttery chapattis wrapped around a sprinkling of sugar. And he’d seen the look on Chubs’ face, the tender surprise. And the way Chubs’ mum had nodded, put one hand up against her son’s cheek then nodded again.
They watched the rest of the film in silence then Chubs’ dad stood up. He handed round cold Budweisers and cans of Mirinda, cracked the ring on his beer and called for silence. He said that what was happening wasn’t right, that he was sorry it had come to this and was sorry, too, that the young people had to go through it. He closed his eyes and prayed that they would be led from despair to hope, from fear to trust. And then he got choked up. His voice cracked but he carried on whispering fiercely. At the end he said, ‘To better days,’ and Ben scrambled to his feet and said it loudly back. They raised their cans together and clunked them in the dimming light.
Ben cheered with them when the park lamps came on. They lit his way down to the dumpsters, hanging overhead like small moons. He threw in their rubbish then made his way slowly back up the hill, taking care not to disturb the picnics. Some of the opiates had been administered, and the youngest children lay sleeping on the ground. Their parents leant over them, whispering in the dark.
When he’d been a kid, he used to hear his parents in the mornings. His bedroom was above the kitchen and their voices would rise up muffled through the floorboards. He could never make out the words, just the sounds: Dad’s low rumble, Mum’s murmur. And it would make him feel safe; the gentleness of it. Like it was too early for shouting. Like the day was too new.
And from where he stood, he could see them – his little group up on the hill. Amanda and Jill, leaning into each other, and Mo and Siobhan doing a slow and clumsy waltz. He could see the hunch of Chubs’ back and the shape of Chubs’ parents. How their shadows touched and melted into each other while he stood alone, watching, like some kind of pervert.
After that, he couldn’t stay.
He swigs again from the bottle and enjoys the warmth of the whisky in his belly. He turns the Dictaphone over and over in his hand. Eventually, he hits record.
‘Me again,’ he says. ‘Still here. Shed – still here.’ He sniffs, uses the back of his hand to wipe his nose. ‘Place needs a clean.’ He takes a breath. ‘It’s getting colder outside. They said it would. No kaboom yet. I’ll keep you posted.’
He switches off the tape and leans into the sofa.
After a while, he picks up a tin from the junk on the floor. It’s an old Quality Streets tub, covered in cheap wrapping paper and drawings of daleks. ‘Ben’s Secret Box – Keep Out!’ it shouts in large felt-tip pen. He can’t remember making it but he must have done. He’d found it in the loft under a pile of his old school uniforms. Inside is a mouldy crème egg, dinosaur stickers, a home-made potato stamp and three cassette tapes.
He picks one out. Its playlist is crammed – Dad’s for sure. Deep Purple, Cream, Led Zep. Dad had loved mix-tapes. They’d had a Beatles one just for Sundays. They’d listen to it in the car as they went for ice cream, and Dad would always get the pistachio, and he would always get the bubble-gum. Michelle, the owner, would give them something extra – a flake, sprinkles, something. Then she’d wink at Ben and tell him that he was her new boyfriend. And on the way home, they’d eat their ice creams and the cones would crack and it would get all over the car, but Dad never minded. They’d roll down their windows and sing along to Michelle as loud as they could. Right up until university, he’d thought the words were, ‘Sunday monkey don’t play piano ensemble’.
He holds the cassette up to the light, studies the reel inside. It’s a mess. He puts his little finger into the spool and tries to coax the tape round but it’s no good. It’s split in several places and won’t play. He puts it back in the tin and picks out another; a bootleg, black with fancy lettering: Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor: a live recording from the Royal Albert Hall.
He’d been there. Tucked away up in the rafters that night. Him and Mum, and Jonty. Jonty was her friend. He’d worked at the Hall, worn a leather jacket and an earring. Talked with a wonky South African accent. He’d snuck them up for the show, a birthday treat for Mum. And they’d stood in the shadows at the top, watching the rich people below. Ben had tried to gob on someone and got smacked on the arm for it. And so he’d sulked, refusing to talk and ignoring Mum go on about how lovely it all was, how she’d loved playing the violin at his age. He hadn’t known what was more stupid: the idea of her with one of those stuck under her chin or her being eight.
When the orchestra had tuned up, it had made him jump, his heart beating fast like he’d been caught doing something wrong. And the sound, the flurry of colours – peeping flutes and rumbling drums – had made him feel like something enormous was waking up, was stretching itself out. Everyone scrambled to their seats, and the lights came down and there was silence.
He swaps the cassettes in the Dictaphone, rewinds the Mozart to the beginning then presses play. There’s the gentle hiss of tape. He leans forward, concentrates. The music softly materialises. It begins to build – slowly, slowly – up in pitch, in sound, the texture thickening, the chords meshing and unmeshing until suddenly the orchestra swells and a full-throated chorus breaks through. And, Jesus, it hits like a wave. And these voices, they don’t leave him alone. They’re like an army of angels, the cry of the dead. A towering column of sound. The music floods the shed, pouring into its corners, into the cracks in the wood. And now he remembers the conductor’s hands, powerful in the air; the watch on the wrist of the timpani player glinting in the light; and how, when he’d turned to look at Mum, there’d been no-one there.
He switches it off. There are goose-bumps on his arms, crumbs of leather in his nails. He lights a cigarette and smokes it in silence.
He’d never told Dad about it. It was their adventure, she’d said, just hers and his. And she’d given him the crème egg and the black tape and told him to put it somewhere safe. It was important, she said, because they were there on the cassette too – in the background, breathing, clapping. So he put them in his box. And, a week later, she ran away.
He stands up too fast and the whisky rushes to his head. The room sways this way and that. Even with his eyes closed, he can feel the light on his face, its blunt yellowness. He hears the hum of the bulb, finds the note, and hums it back. Then he drops his head and listens to the moths pattering against the pane.
When the room stops spinning, he sits down. He puts the Mozart carefully back in its case then picks out the last cassette from the tin. It’s covered in stickers. He slides it in.
‘Goooood evening! This is The Big Ben Bonanza Show! The best and brainiest and baddest show in the whole wide world! I’m your DJ and I have some amaaaazing guests for you tonight!’
That voice. Impossibly high and squeaky, muffling as it comes too close to the microphone, tripping over words and gurgling with laughter. Is that – was that ever him? He sits and listens. To the fart jokes and the riddle of the day and the jingle for Coca-Ben-Cola – the bubbliest beverage about. To the interview with Old Heinrich Malarky, German professor and inventor of the radioactive snot gun. And this kid, this kid is great. He’s doing his thing and playing the kazoo and then – out of nowhere – on the tape, the latch goes and the door pushes in and it’s her. Her voice on the tape. And it’s just like her. To do something so fucking unpredictable. To fuck him over when he’s looking the other way.
‘Ben, I’m just running to the shops, OK?’
‘Mum! Get out! You’re ruining my show!’
There are footsteps and the smack of her kiss on his head.
‘Bye, Benji. Ben? Sweetheart?’
But there’s no answer, and she doesn’t go, and the door doesn’t close. She must have stood there, watching, as he apologised to his listeners for the dreaded Mumzilla. Then the show goes on. He pulls party poppers, burps Eastenders and sucks on helium for the weather report on Mars. He says goodbye and goodnight and, then – in the background – the floorboard creaks, the door closes, and she’s gone.
What is he supposed to do with that?
She’s just running to the shops. The ones in fucking South Africa? Fuck responsibilities. Fuck parenting – why even bother? And she’d listened to that kid, listened to him sing and laugh and, still, she’d left. Left him to become, what? An unemployed fucking alcoholic in a shed full of shit with the world about to blow?
He comes back to the shed at 12:56am, puts the table the right-way up. He sweeps up the glass from the smashed bottle and picks up the cassettes off the floor. Moths teem in through the open door and clamour at the bulb. He watches the spread of soft grey wings, translucent and beautiful. Then he takes the Dictaphone and stands in the garden under the full moon.
She’d called a few times after she left, but he was never allowed to speak to her. Dad said she’d done enough damage and he refused to send on her things. He made a bonfire in the garden instead to show she couldn’t come back – but he needn’t have bothered. She died in a car crash four months later. Jonty wrote.
The rain slants down under the lamppost. It falls quietly, sliding off black leaves and soaking slowly into the ground. Gentle, like the hiss on tape. He thinks of the people on the hill, Chubs and his mum and dad. Can they feel it too, on their faces, their hands? Are they scared?
He checks his watch then holds the Dictaphone up to his mouth.
‘It’s five past one. There’s nothing yet. But it’s so quiet. Like the world is breathing. I . . . Sorry –’ He wipes his face with his sleeve. ‘My favourite was macaroni cheese. I don’t know if she knew that but it was. Still is.’
He turns back to look at the shed, at the glow of the lightbulb in the window.
The ground begins to shake.