Singing a Man to Death, a collection of short stories, is notable for its range, sophistication, and readability. The fictions cover a range of milieus from England to Pacific islands to semimythical territories; ages from the contemporary to early medieval; and a range of ‘realisms’ from the naturalistic to the supernatural to the magicrealism. Displaying linguistic range and richness, characters are stranded in or confronted by disorientating milieus. …A strong collection.
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Singing a Man to Death
I keep hearing the tune. Not out loud, of course. It's just that some mornings, usually when I've had too much to drink the night before, I wake up at first light and find it running through my head: Mete üöbik oo tänabu. It's been more than twenty-five years. And I only heard it once, or twice at the most. In any case nobody died of it, as far as I know. The music probably isn't fatal, no more than any other of those things that stay with you: the smell of toast, say, or the mauve fluttering the gas fire used to make when you lit it, or the scrape of a stylus across the shiny black grooves of a vinyl record. Remember how the silence before the track started used to be amplified, too? You could probably kill someone using memories if you kept at it long enough.
I used to keep all the essentials of life on a rug in front of the fire: a jar of coffee, a jar of Coffee-Mate, an electric kettle, bread, butter, honey, a toasting-fork improvised out of a wire coathanger, books and papers, a scattered trail of LPs that led to the stereo. The records mostly belonged to Luke, who had thrown out my Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and my Crime of the Century and my Tubular Bells, and was taking charge of my musical education. After an evening in the pub, we would end up in my room, which was bigger than Tobias's on the other side of the passage and more conveniently situated than Luke's attic-room. I would sit by the gasfire and make coffee while Luke hung over the stereo, so he could take off a record halfway through a track when he decided he'd grown out of it, and Tobias, as usual after a few pints, thrashed about heavily on the bed, claiming to be possessed.
'What is this place? How do I come here?'
'Who are you, man?' Luke would ask.
'I am not man. My name is Eliza Wilmot. I was born in the year of our Lord 1746. I am eighteen years old.'
'Yeah? Who's the king?'
'I know naught of kings and princes. I am a simple woman.'
'You are a simple arsehole.'
'Abuse me not, reprobate. I bring news of the life beyond, and of this life.'
'You're full of shit.'
'Not so. I have left this corporeal world and all its feculent matter. Now listen. Listen.'
'If you're a woman, how come you don't sound like one?'
'Listen to me, fools. The spirit is within thee. Harken to its voice. Its word is "Do what thou wilt." Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. I have spoken.'
Then there would be a long pause, while he seemed to have fallen asleep, until I brought the mug of coffee close to his face. 'What? What? Where am I? What happened?'
Mete üöbik. Remember landladies? How they didn't like you flushing the toilet at night, or using Blutak on the walls, how the worst fear they had in the world was that you would go to bed with someone in their house? Jessie never knocked; she would just appear out of the shadows into the light of the angle poise, wrinkled and froglike with a helmet of dyed black hair, a cryptic smile on her face. The three of us were in the same room; that constituted a party, and parties would wear out the house, just as surely as posters wore out the wallpaper and sex, if any of us ever managed to get any, would take all the bounce out of the bedsprings.
Jessie didn't shout. The worst she would ever say was 'You are not a worker,' in her peculiar voice, which sounded foreign even though its accent was pre-war upper-class English. 'At least Philip is a worker. Even Tobias is a worker. But Luke is not a worker!' She would throw her arms round Luke or me, smiling all the time in that unreadable way.
'Ah, good evening, my good woman!' Tobias would shout from the bed.
But she never seemed to hear him. 'Is he tired? He shouldn't be lying on the bed with his shoes on.'
'I expect she's from the Carpathians,' Tobias said one evening after Jessie had left. 'A lot of landladies are.'
'You are so full of shit,' Luke told him. 'You know that?'
Tobias twiddled the ends of his beard. 'There was a Carpathian landlady in Mill Road,' he said, 'who sang one of her tenants to death. Caught him in bed with someone and after that she would stand outside his door every night and sing to him. As they do in the Carpathians.'
Apparently there was a musical phrase called the Devil's Interval, which was considered unlucky in all musical traditions. But in the Carpathians, the Devil's Interval was just one element of an ancient murdersong, somehow kept back from the notebooks and tape-recorders of the folklorists. It could never be written down properly in any case, with its quartertones and nasal trills and the occasional noise generated deep inside the skull by an organ that most people don't possess in working order. It was passed on by the village bard-shaman-healer who would whisper-sing it on his deathbed to the chosen apprentice. Or her deathbed? Tobias wasn't sure.
'You'd have to have a good memory, in any case. You can only hear the song so many times before you die. It's one of the Numbers of Power. Seventy-seven, I believe. Or seven hundred and seventy-seven.'
'Seven hundred and seventy-seven what?'
'So let me get this straight — you just sing to someone and it kills them?'
'With your fingers in your ears, obviously,' Tobias said. 'Otherwise you would drop dead yourself.'
'That is so cool,' Luke said.
Luke used to break into my room through the window in the early morning and put a record on the stereo at full volume. 'How about this?' he would ask as I sprang up waving my arms.
'What? Oh God. Fuck off.'
'No, man, I'm serious. What do you think?'
'Turn it down.'
'All right, all right, cool. I made you a cup of coffee. Now what do you think?'
'Oh God. Yes, I quite like it. Yes, it's OK, great. What is it?'
'You have no fucking taste at all, have you?'
He was right. I had no natural taste in his kind of music, and had to work it all out for myself. It had nothing to do with being contemporary. The word he always used about a record he liked was 'authentic', and I gradually came to realise it meant dead. His heroes were Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Nick Drake, all suicides or as good as, all dead before they were thirty. I got to be able to recognise the suicide singers. There was a graveyard hollowness in the voice, as if the singer was already dead when recording it. The effect was even creepier on my record-player, which used to pick up radio messages from the local taxi-drivers and occasionally let off a deafening rat-tat-tat like a machine-gun firing out of the speakers. Luke would grab the record off the turntable and ask me when I last had my fucking stylus checked.
'It isn't the stylus,' I told him. 'It's just the speakers. It doesn't damage the record.'
'Haven't even got an anti-static cloth,' he mumbled.
'I use that sock. It's quite clean.'
'I'm fucking wasted on you, you realise that?'
Luke saw himself as a rock star manqué. He had the looks for it, supposedly, though I couldn't see it myself. His shoulders were so broad he looked slightly deformed, or as if there was a coathanger stuck in the back of his shirt, and his head, with its flouncy greying curls, was also exaggeratedly large. But he would study himself in the hall mirror on his way out to the front door for minutes at a time and sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, he would say, à propos of nothing, 'I'm Luke?' like that, with a question mark on the end of it, as if he couldn't believe how lucky he was. And this girl I knew, Yasmin, who had a boyfriend in Kettering, used to refer to him as 'your gorgeous friend', purely theoretically, in the same way she would talk about other women's eyes or figures.
I went up to his room one afternoon and found him lying on his floor, surrounded by naked LPs and tattered sleeves bearing black and white pictures of snowy pine forests, fat women in flouncy dresses and small men clutching zithers. 'How do you feel, man?' he shouted. 'Does this one make you feel kind of anaemic?'
'That is the whole fucking point.'
'Put it off. I can't hear myself think.'
'Isn't it great?' Luke got up slowly, and put the record off. 'You want coffee?' he said as usual, but when I accepted he just stood there, shaking his head slightly, as if testing it for something. 'What do you want to hear yourself think for?' he said finally. 'Aren't you so fucking fed up with hearing yourself think?'
I knew what he meant, then. At least I was fed up with hearing myself think about Yasmin and the boyfriend she stayed with in Kettering most weekends. She showed me his picture once: solid-looking with a Beatle haircut and the points of his collar sticking out of a blue Marks and Spencer's sweater with a silver diamond-pattern on the front. They'd been going out for five years and were practically married. I found it hard to imagine life in Kettering, where people started going out at the age of fourteen. And I found it hard to imagine Yasmin, whose skin was golden even in the winter and whose eyebrows looked like Chinese calligraphy, in Kettering at all. I asked Luke once if he knew where it was and he said it was so unthere it didn't even exist.
I used to wake up at night and hear myself telling her how I'd always loved her, how I had so much more to offer than David because I was an intellectual and intellectuals made the best lovers. Then telling her that I was an intellectual and intellectuals could only make themselves and other people miserable, so she must go back to Kettering where she really belonged. Telling her that I knew we were only friends, but why shouldn't friends have sex? She was lonely away from David, I was lonely away from, well, nobody much, and there was such a lot we could teach each other before going back to our respective lives. And then, sooner or later, telling her that even though she didn't love me and I didn't love her, I needed her to please, please, sleep with me just this once and I would never bother her again.
At this point I used to get out of bed. The time was always somewhere between three and four-thirty, the brief period after the last drunk and before the milk float. The thoughts stopped at once, to be replaced by a raw, chafing feeling. Then I would sit in my knobbly blue armchair beside the gas fire and listen to records through the headphones. The ones Luke had lent me or made me buy, death music: Nick Drake and Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. The only ones that worked in the small hours of the morning beside the gas fire.
But this stuff? You couldn't even understand the words.
He rubbed his face with his fingers as if trying to remove a blush. 'All right,' he admitted.
'All right what?'
'It is crap, most of it. Well, all of it. I just wanted to find the right song. The song.'
He had somehow got it into his head that if the murdersong existed you must be able to buy it somewhere; in the record stall at the market or one of those backstreet shops that sold bootleg albums in plain sleeves. All his life he'd been looking for a kind of music that nobody else knew about, a musical Holy Grail, except that it had to be a dark one, a death grail. Now he had almost found it.
'You really believe it, don't you?' I said.
'Yeah. No. Well, look, I don't want to kill myself, if that's what you think. Not now, anyway — I'm not even twenty yet, for fuck's sake. Give it a few years, and maybe. Don't you get it?'
'Aren't you even a bit curious? About what it would sound like, a song that was so powerful it could end your life? I mean, listen, man —' Luke started to pick up the albums and put them back in their sleeves. 'Would it hurt? Or would it be more like a drug, so that every time you listened to it you got higher and higher, until the last time, seventy-seventh or whatever, you just floated away into the other world? Or maybe it would be very subtle, so you didn't even know it was doing anything. It would be like you play it seventy-six times, and nothing happens. And then you put the record away and you'll always know that whatever happens to you in life, if you get cancer, or if some fucking bastard in the White House decides it's time for the Third World War, you can just get out your record and that's it.'
'If it works,' I said, but he wasn't listening.
'Or get this, right? You go through the rest of your life knowing that one day you might hear that song. Like you have kids, and one of them thinks, oh I'll just put that funny old record on, and you walk in at that moment and say oh God, not that one! But it's too late. Amazing, eh?'
'Yes, and the kid doesn't know that it was the record that made you drop dead, so he plays it another seventy-six times and dies himself.'
'Now you're getting it.'
'But that's crazy. Why should you want to kill your own child?'
'I don't, man, I don't even have a fucking child. This is a hypothetical child, right? If he can get himself born, he can look after himself from then on. OK, maybe I throw away the record for the sake of the kid. I still know that one day I might walk into a party and find they're playing my tune.'
'They wouldn't. It's crap.'
'So what? I'll be middle-aged by then. I'll be a chartered accountant, living in a semi-detached, mowing the lawn on Saturdays. I'll be going to parties where everybody wears ties and the music is just automatically crap. Except that in my case the crap would be like heroin, or Russian roulette or something, it would have an edge to it.'
'Look,' I said. 'First of all, you don't even know this song exists. It's just some stupid legend. Second, even if it's true, who on earth would make a record of a thing like that? It would be illegal, if it existed, which it doesn't. And thirdly, even if it exists, and it is on record, how the fuck are you going to know when you hear it? You said yourself there might not be any symptoms.'
'That's what I like about you,' Luke said. 'You're a wanker, but you're a really logical wanker.'
One day he broke into my room while I was out, made himself a cup of coffee and went away again, leaving a dozen of his Eastern European bargain albums behind. The note said, 'You're right, except maybe for one of these which has been giving me strange thoughts. I don't want to hear any of them ever again! Your turn now. Which is the mindfuck one?'
They reminded me of the ancient records we used to have in my childhood, piled up in a compartment of a pseudo-mahogany cabinet called the radiogram. Mono, all of them. I slipped one of them out — actually it fell out, having no inner sleeve, and wheeled across the carpet. The picture on the cover showed a large grey city, all pillars and pediments; the album appeared to be by somebody called Walmar Udmurt.
To my surprise, it had no scratches, just a couple of dull areas that might be a bit fuzzy or might play perfectly well. I carried it over to the stereo. Maybe I'd play a track, if only to prove that it couldn't do anything to me.
It was a marching band with city noises in the background, even a bit of birdsong, I thought, but no singing yet. The track had only been on a minute when the machine-gun went off through the speakers and, in my slightly nervous state, I thought my head would explode. I took the needle off and put the record back.
I didn't recognise at first what was wrong with Yasmin's face. Then I realised she had been crying and it had made her blurry, as if I was viewing her out of focus. This was one of the fantasies that kept me awake at night: Yasmin in tears, asking for an arm round her shoulders, a hug. I almost reached for her shoulders there and then, on the threshold, but thought better of it.
'What's the matter?' It was Sunday evening — she shouldn't even be here. Something must have happened in Kettering to make her come back early.
'It's nothing. David and I had a bit of a barney, that's all.'
I got the impression she'd been practising the phrase, trying to make it sound emotionally neutral, insignificant, even a bit of a joke. What would Luke have made of the word she used? Barney, what the fuck? That is such a non-word, man. I instinctively looked along the passage to the stairs before ushering her inside. No sign of him.
She didn't want coffee, she said. She'd been drinking tea for three hours already. So I offered her whisky, a bottle I'd had for my birthday and hardly touched.
'I don't like it.'
'Nor do I, much, but it'll make you feel better.'
We sat together on the rug in front of the gasfire, drinking whisky, while she cried. I'd never been this close to her before, not for so long, anyway. She was wearing a fluffy black cardigan that made her look like a kitten, and I kept thinking how strange it was to cover all that smoothness with something so hairy, those thin shoulders with all that padding. I could smell her tears.
'I always thought I was going to marry him, you see. Ever since I met him. And then suddenly, all at once, I'm on my own again. Do you know what it's like to be on your own?'
I felt wiser than I'd ever been in my life, as if I had lived everything that human beings were capable of. 'Everybody goes through that,' I said. 'But you're not alone. I'm here.'
'You're really sweet, Philip. Thank you.'
After a couple of whiskies, her mood started to change. She dried her tears and became recklessly cheerful. 'Sod him,' she kept saying, 'sod him, sod him. There are plenty more fish in the sea. And I've always got you, haven't I, Philip?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Singing a Man to Death"
Copyright © 2012 Matthew Francis.
Excerpted by permission of Cinnamon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Singing a Man to Death,
Between the Walls,
The Vegetable Lamb,