Tempo Rising by Alia Halstead


She smokes a rollie whilst blasting hot air up her jumper with a hairdryer. The smell of fresh paint lingers through the smoke. The pangs of pre-menstruation tighten.


She’d been called into Stan, the director’s office, where he hovered over his laptop, and Josh, from human resources, leant against a filing cabinet.

            “What’s this?” Stan said.

Tempo looked at one of the surround-sound speakers, “Lungs”.


            “The sound of life. You said be experimental. Be avant-garde, be ‘what you do best’ – you said that.”

            “You make sound for film. It needs to relate to what’s on the screen.” He puffed on his electronic cigarette. “I can barely hear it.”

            “Sometimes it’s what’s not heard that gives meaning.”

            “You must be joking – you have something else, right?” He forwarded the clip. “How long does this go on for?”

            “Two minutes, thirty – same as the scene.”


            “It’s intimate – there’s a gentle passion to it.”

“What’s a gentle passion? That doesn’t even make sense.” He stared at the James Bond poster on the adjacent wall. “They’re fucking.”

            “No, they are carefully exploring – there’s been a build-up,” Tempo followed his gaze, “You wanted Raindance – no one wants Sean-Connery-rape-scenes anymore.”

            “Redo it – you’ve got two days.”

            “They’re kicking me out of my studio – how am I supposed to work?”

            “Firstly, it’s not your studio – and I know the property manager thinks you’re living in there by the way.”

            “I’m not-”

Josh interrupted, “Well, obviously no one is accusing.”

            “It’s got asbestos,” Stan said, “So, of course, you can’t use it anymore.”

            “They only found asbestos upstairs,” Tempo replied.

Stan turned to Josh, “I can’t have this argument with her.”

            “Tempo,” Josh said, “Let’s talk about this later, yeah.”

            “Secondly, use Studio 4”, Stan said, “it’s got upgraded gear – that’ll cut out all the manual shit that takes you ages.”

            “It takes ages because it’s live performance. I have to physically make the instruments – you know that – if you wanted generic, you’d get one of the techies to

mix something.”

            “Josh – get Lucas to put together two-thirty,” Stan said.

Josh looked at Tempo, “You can get this done, right?”

            “Tempo have a go,” Stan interrupted whilst typing, “but I can’t afford another delay, so we’ll have to have a backup – I’m being more than fucking reasonable here, guys. And get one of the techies to record you.”

            “No, you know I do it alone – it’s in my contract.”

            “Two days. That’s it.” He looked at her, “The studio said don’t get a foley. They’re temperamental. But, I love your work.” His hand gestured her to the door, “You’re a clever girl.”                    






A hasp and padlock securely bolted. She shook the lock and kicked the door.  She

paced the corridor and caught sight of the property manager.

            “David,” she shouted as she ran up to him.

He turned around, with toolkit in hand, “Hey, Tempo.”

            “Did Josh tell you I’d be away from my studio?”

            “No. I -”

            “You can’t just lock me out – I need my things.”

            “I was told you had moved rooms.”

            “That’s bullshit.” She reached for his keychain.

            “You can’t go in – it’s not safe.” He edged away.

            “How is it any less safe than it was twenty minutes ago when I was in there – and how on earth would you have coincidentally known I was away at that precise time?” She was shaking, “They bloody told you didn’t they – they told you.”

            “I’m just doing my job.”

            “Please, can I pop in and get my inhaler?”

            “I suppose you can’t be without that.”

As they walked David turned to her, “I noticed someone had smashed the fire alarm off the ceiling. You can’t do that in the new studio.”




            “Don’t forget you’re coming to mine tomorrow for dinner. Marco’s excited to try out a vegan moussaka recipe.”

            “Oh, I need to finish – ” she looked at him, “Tomorrow. I’ll be there.”

            “Marco was thrilled with the playlist you sent.”

            “I’m glad.” She watched him open the room. “Stay outside, David, in case there’s asbestos.”




Standing in the familiar surroundings of her cluttered studio, she approached her

jade plant and embraced the pot into her chest.

            “You’re a hardy beast,” she whispered into the oval leaves.


She grabbed a flat-packed box from the top of the shelves, punched out the

cardboard flaps, and scanned the studio. The two-seater sofa simultaneously

deflated and puffed, echoing her curves. She pulled off the crocheted blanket and

wrapped it around her shoulders. The skyline of boxes of objects collected

throughout the years: tiny Victorian medicine bottles she’d stolen from the Old

Operating Theatre, a broken hair-straightener that emitted a rusty clang when

the worn plates clasped together. Lost jewellery bells and creations made out of

chicken wire and gypsum plaster.


She’d made a conjoined-twins Jesus sculpture. Running her finger along its dusty form she shuddered as the roughness scoured.


She picked through her box of USBs, tapes and CDs. The recording of her ectopic pregnancy she’d saved from her old phone, labelled, “The Hypothetical”. Her bursting screams tugged onto the fallopian tube just as the egg had. After the argument with the nurse about keeping her phone, the recording was mostly background noise whilst it was shut in a drawer. No sound of the sedation or surgery.

            “Can you see why the nurse thought it was odd to record it?” The grief counsellor asked.

            “I told her I was a sound artist.”


It wasn’t a baby, but an idea travelling into nothingness. A secret until the doctors told her emergency contact.

            “You don’t want to be a single parent,” her grandmother said down the phone the week after.

            “I would have worked it out,” she replied.

            “It was no fun when your grandad left me with two children.”

            “It was different then.”

            “And I had my parents to help. You don’t. I’m far too old to babysit.”

            “I’m sure his family would have helped.”

            “Strangers will always offer but rarely deliver.”

            “I’d better get back to work, Nan.”

            “You’re lucky to be alive.”

            “I know, but it’s still upsetting.”

            “It wasn’t really a pregnancy, darling. I promise, you’re best off without it. Do forget about it.”


She opened the recording booth. The bucket she’d been using to pee in stood in the corner. She found some hand sanitiser gel and poured it in, shoving the bucket it in the cables cupboard. She picked up her stack of notepads and a handful of pens, all of which had snapped lids.


            “Tempo – c’mon now,” David called from behind the door, “I’ll help you carry your stuff.”





She’d spend hours in supermarkets, squeezing Victoria sponge packets, shaking boxes of bran flakes, rubbing kiwi skins; tapping on chandelier crystal and pressing camera buttons to release their shutters at car boots.


She’d let Collie, her old school friend, set her up on dates. The men would often leave early as she’d exaggerate her crunching and slurping; ding cardamom pods against wine glasses; clap lobster claws together with her irrevocable laugh.


            “Just try to be a bit more… scaled-back maybe,” Collie would say as they’d evaluate the dates.

            “They’re all so heavy-going. It’s bor-Ring.” She’d reply.

            “I know you – you wind people up on purpose.”

            “They always ask me if I DJ.”

            “Because you always wear those big stupid headphones around your neck.”

            “They’re noise-cancelling. Helpful when dating.”

            “They’re trying to make conversation.”

            “Please, no more Canary Wharfers you find at your little work lunches.”

            “They’re not all monsters.” Collie would swirl her glass. “I just want you to be happy.”

            “I am.”

            “I want someone to look after you. Scoop you up and cook for you – you can’t just eat chickpeas.”

            “Ha! You’ve been watching too many rom-coms – y’know they are funded by born-agains, and anyway, I don’t need looking after – they’d bore me to death, and then I’d be dead!’ Tempo would top up their glasses, “Killing someone isn’t very looky aftery.”

            “Or have some fun, for fuck’s sake.”

            “One night reflects all nights in a microcosm.”

            “How profound. Just give them a chance – they’re nervous.”

            “Why should I pretend to be something I’m not to appease their fragile egos?”

            “We’ve all got egos.” Collie would lick residue salsa off her manicured nails. “What about that guy Harry set you up with? You liked him – you said you could be yourself with him.”

            “He died.”

            “I know, but… y’know, it just goes to show – there are people out there.”


Maybe it was the cancer that helped him enjoy her soundscapes in the restaurant. The playful touches, his respectful tone. She’d write about him on post-it notes and stick them in her copy of Frankenstein. They became progressively more influenced by Catullus. 


He gobbles food like a frantic evangelical channeling god.

My auditory canal converts into a chapel.

A thousand mouthfuls, a thousand swallows, a thousand and a thousand, will never be enough.

Let no one speak your name, for it taints your rhythm.


For her birthday he had surprised her with tickets to see a light exhibition.

            “I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me,” he said, placing his hands on her shoulders, “but light doesn’t really make sound.”

            “Bulbs can buzz when you mess with the voltage.”

            “Of course!” he threw his hands into the air.

            “Season two, episode four of Who Killed My Neighbour,” her voice sped up, “I made the sound of mosquitoes getting electrocuted by not screwing in a bulb properly, and filtering the sound of squishing crisp packets through one of those prize-winning giant courgettes.”

            “A lot to unpack in that.” He said with his low, crisp voice as they walked under flashes of neon.

“I cut off an end, scraped out the insides and shoved my hand up it like I was fisting a cow.”

“Interesting visuals,” he laughed. “Light does vibrate like sound.”

            “You vibrate.” She responded.


            “Ha, you’re dating a weirdo. What does that make you?”

            His eyebrows lifted, “Lucky.”         


Keeping the good memories of him. Pushing away how he shrivelled from Olympian to derelict shell.


Tempo could not bear to think of his last sound evaporate.



Studio 4 is sterile and barren. The newness will take years to break in.


She presses her face against the dark glass of the recording booth. The cold hardness on her cheek made her think of astronauts looking out to Earth; the isolation of a swirling in a mass of time. Waiting for her womb to release.


The creation of lungs had started six months ago. She’d record self-induced asthma attacks and listen back copiously; slowing down, speeding up; clipping the edges of breath.  Nights spent gluing together an array of leaves; creating pockets where she’d insert a straw to puff air through. Browning hornbeam and beech younglings pulsating: too crispy, too sloppy. Tissue-paper bubbles weren’t satisfying. Tightly-knit stitches applied to pig intestines to form balloons: the smell of pain. Faint squeaks and wheezy cranks recorded on her well-worn Scully 28 1/2 4-track. 


The boiling kettle and Deep Heat on her stomach; sifting through her notebook of sounds. You’re a clever girl ricochets. I’m not a girl, she wished she’d said. You squirmy trust-fund prick.


She sorts through the junkyard of props she’d poured onto the floor – toys, boots, stones and microphones – clicking wires into silver machines – drinking up the humming feedback. Pivoting soundboards. Turning the lights down to a soft glow. Standing in front of the big screen, forwarding and rewinding the scene. Kissing the back of her hand. Oohing. Slugging. Bare feet dragging on a scuffed rug, mirroring the dance of fumbling sex. Distributing her body off-balance. Vapid gasps. 


Alia is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Being neurodivergent, it is important for her to weave these elements into her stories. Alia researches, produce and co-hosts a podcast which is aired on an award winning radio station, Radio Reverb 97.2FM.

27 June 2022