Song of Time begins with an old woman discovering a half-drowned man on a Cornish beach in the furthest days of this strange century. She, once a famous concert violinist, is close to death herself — or a new kind of life she can barely contemplate. Does death still exist at all, or has finally been extinguished? And who is this strange man she's found? Is he a figure returned from her own past, a new messiah, or an empty vessel?
Filled with love, music, death and life, and spanning the world from the prim English suburbs of Birmingham to the wild inventions of a new-Renaissance Paris to a post-apocalyptic India, Song of Time tells the story of this century, and confronts the ultimate leap into a new kind of existence, and whatever lies beyond...
Praise for Song of Time:
“MacLeod’s quiet, meditative novels and stories have been winning critical acclaim for years, and Song of Time sees him at the height of his powers. At the end of a long and eventful life, celebrated violinist Roushana Maitland orders her memories before she passes from the world of the flesh to a virtual afterlife. When she finds a mysterious stranger washed up on the beach of her Cornish retreat, he facilitates the process of remembrance. In flashback chapters we follow Roushana’s turbulent life through the cataclysmic events of the 21st century, taking in the deaths of loved ones, marriage to a conductor-entrepreneur, and a final heartbreaking revelation, Song of Time is a slow, sensitive first-person account of what it means to be human and vulnerable, and confirms MacLeod as one of the country’s very best literary SF writers.” —The Guardian
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Song of Time
By Ian R. MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Ian R. MacLeod
All rights reserved.
Something white's lying on the shore as I cross the last ridge of shingle. Seagulls rise as I trudge towards it. I'd walk on if I could be sure that it was merely a salt-bleached log, but I can't simply turn away. The ground slips and a bigger wave breaks over my knees. A hand flails, limbs unravel, bubbles glitter, and a human face stares up from the retreating sea, masked with weed.
I grab a hand, an arm. A sudden backwash almost claims us, then, in a heave, I and the body are free. I look around. Splinters of dawn light part the clouds, but there's nothing else here along this shore but me, this man and the grey Atlantic. There are bruises, scratches, gouges, beneath the stripes of weeds which cover him, but otherwise he's naked. And he's obviously young, clearly male, and still alive—if barely. I struggle to turn him over and attempt to pump the water from his lungs, but already I'm exhausted. He struggles against me and blinks.
"Who are you?"
He blinks again.
"Where are you from?"
The blued lips shape to say something, then he vomits up the sea.
Arm in arm, we stagger towards the cliffs. The many steps which ascend to my house from beside the boathouse are of age-corroded concrete. I really should lay him here out of reach of the sea and hurry alone up to Morryn—I should alert the relevant authorities. Instead, his weight drags my shoulders as we climb together and the disappointed gulls swoop. His bare feet, as they stub and blunder, begin to bleed.
At last, we reach the chimneys of Morryn. We struggle up the sloped lawn, I stab my fingers at the controls on the front door, then we slump dripping into the hall. Where to put him? I have a bedroom upstairs which I reserve for the guests who never come, but I can't face another climb, so it has to be the music room. I kick open the door, then make a final lunge towards the red divan just as the weight of his body begins to topple me.
Buffeted by weary waves of pain, I collapse on the chair beside my desk. Consciousness fades. When it returns, the figure is still sprawled across the divan. No, he's not a ghost, for there are dribbles of seawater across the rugs, and he's brought with him the smells of the shore. It did happen. His eyes are closed. A fallen hand twitches. It's stuck with fragments of shell, and the nails are cracked and chipped. Even allowing for the damage of our journey up those steps, his feet also look sore and abraded. Is all of this just from rocks and shingle? Standing up, I cross the littered rugs to examine him more closely. His skin has mostly shed the stripes and tangles of weed. It's blued with bruises, criss-crossed with scratches, greyed and reddened with many small abrasions, although underneath it seems softly, uniformly, goldenly, pale. His muscles are well-developed. His hair, both on his head and his groin, is drying to a darkish blonde. He could be a drowned Greek god.
"David, is that your name?"
The eyes flicker in a wet glint.
"Can you hear me ?"
A trailing leg moves. He's looking up at me now, but the gaze is barely focused. Muscles rope in a spasm, then he falls back. When the eyes slip closed again, I sense that he's shutting me off. In another moment, the breathing has slowed. The eyeballs flicker. He seems to be asleep
Leaving him, I close and lean against the music room door. My senses blur. Just what am I doing? I'm soaked, stuck with the bits of shore and weed he's sloughed off on our journey. I, too, wish I could sleep, escape But I head instead for the laundry cupboard. The house implement which airs and presses my linen extends its silvery limbs as I reach to scoop up towels and blankets, but I bat it away, then struggle with arms full to get the music room door open again. Inside, the automatic piano shines its wooden sail, filled with the morning which floods through the wide bay windows. Why did I choose to put him in this of all rooms, where everything is so personal, so much a part of me? These walls lean with awards, gold disks, rare scraps of manuscript, antique concert programs, images of my husband Claude conducting the world's great orchestras. The floor is strewn with family photos, old CDs, scraps of image, my children's crayon drawings. My desk is a shrine piled high with the past. My Guarneri violin lies waiting in its case. All I am is here—everything that I could find, anyway. Yet now I've brought in this stranger
My hands are trembling as I cover my drowned man with blankets. He certainly isn't starved and—despite all these many small wounds—he looks almost heartbreakingly perfect. His body hasn't been distorted or changed in the way that so many are nowadays either, and his penis is plump and jaunty despite the cold. He simply is what he is: human, young, living, male. I'd forgotten how beautiful people can be in this pure animal state. His hand no longer twitches. As I lift his head to place a towel under it, he gives a small smile.
My mind circles the obvious point. This is far from the first time bodies have been found washed up along these Cornish shores. There always have been wrecks and drownings, and the refugee ships and dirigibles of all the recent diasporas often crash or sink when they are intercepted by the guardian subs and drones. And refugees are often male and young, just as they have always been. What happens to them if they are captured alive? Sent back, I suppose, to the droughts of Africa, the sink cities of Southern Europe
Outside the music room's windows, the segmented sky and horizon remain empty. There are no ships, aircraft, or visible automata. Perhaps he's nothing more than an early-morning swimmer, caught by cramp or an unexpected current? But in that case, desperate relatives would already be searching for him. And if they were, drones and flitters would also be crawling and scanning the beach. People are easy to find now, at least the ones who are fortunate enough to live in these parts. We radiate like beacons to the waymarks which help protect our boundaries. If he were a local yachtsman heading out from Fowey or Mevagissey or Penzance, or pleasure-seeker, or cliffside walker, or merely a skinny-dipping tourist caught out by this treacherous sea, he would have been rescued long before I found him.
I study his face, trying to fix the features. Trying, as well, to remember what racial stereotype we are supposed to fear in this new century. Dispossessed Americans? Maoris? But those bogeymen lie in other decades. Now, people can make themselves look like anything. They can change their colour, re-arrange their genes. I risk raising the blankets again to check that he's breathing. He is—and everything else is still there. Dawn has long passed. Beyond the windows lie ambered clouds, skeins of blue. Today will be cloudy-bright. It will be sunny and rainy. There will be calm and storm. Typically Cornish late summer weather, for these, my last Cornish days. My stomach rumbles. By now, I should have coaxed coffee and croissants from the implements within the glass claw of the new kitchen, and gone through my monitoring routines and taken the palliative medicines which are supposed to control my symptoms, and then started my daily practise on my violin. And then, and then—for I was determined that I would make a proper stab, a real start, at arranging my memories—I would begin to go over the strew of objects which covers my desk and froths from its half-jammed drawers. My head spins as I ease myself back into the chair. I've never been a great one for throwing things away, but it's not like me to exist in quite this level of clutter. But what else can I do? What other choice is there?
This house, these thick granite walls, have absorbed the sighs and screams of birth and death and every other kind of memory for the best part of four hundred years. For Morryn, it really is the start of just another day. I slide open drawers. Holiday seashells, ancient CDs, dried out pens, a single earring, my first tuning fork, datasticks and gimcrack souvenirs, all slide and roll. Here's a postcard Mum once sent me from Delhi. Tilt it at the right angle, hold it close enough to your ear, and it still activates; you can hear the murmur of traffic, smell jasmine and garbage, taste the dust of that lost city. Here's the red plastic shoe of a Barbie doll. Here's a note from Claude, scrawled in that big, elegant handwriting, which probably once came with a gift. And floating above this desk is the screen of the thing which I still think of as a computer, although it has no physical frame. Activate it, and I could wade even deeper into memory: access old school reports which Dad once hand-scanned into a computer in one of his attempts at orderliness—Roseanna (the teachers often mis-spelt my name) is a very lively child. When she settles to a task, however —half-corrupted e-mails, videos of birthday parties, multisense recordings, and a near endless variety of my and Claude's performances. It's all there, waiting. But where to start? This is my life, yet it's far too much for me to cope with.
I'm dying. The thought still comes as a cold shock. I feel ridiculous, disappointed and—yes—angry. After all, I'm barely a hundred, and I certainly hadn't planned that my recent concerts would be my last. I put my surprising weariness down to a punishing schedule—for touring and performing is always hard work. In the space of just two months, I gave twenty-one chamber recitals and fifteen concert performances across the globe. I watched the earth vanish and the stars appear through the windows of a dozen shuttles. People, I was gratified to discover, still wanted to hear Roushana Maitland's fabulous tone, which was once famously described as being as clear as the noonday sun glinting on an iceberg. I played my violin, and the music remained immortal, and so, I thought, was I. I saved the tremors, the dizzy spells, the fuzzy vision, the inexplicable bouts of sobbing, for hotel rooms, then dressed and went out to dine in the world's best restaurants with new and rediscovered acquaintances, both virtual and real. Once, a wineglass fell. Sometimes, I forgot names. In Prague, I was unable to find my way back to my dressing room from the stage, but all these things are hardly the sole prerogative of the elderly. That was what I truly believed.
There was New Jakarta. There was Bangalore—and a forced over - night stay and listening to the hum of some environmental device as toxic rain battered my hotel window. Then came Sydney, and that last triumphant encore, and a late meal and an even later party. When the door to my hotel suite finally kissed itself shut, I was no longer sure whether I felt happy or sad that my tour was at an end. Basically, I was nostalgically drunk, and my ablutions before I climbed onto the bed and willed it and the world to stop rotating were perfunctory. No surprise, then, that it should be almost noon by the time I awakened, nor that I should have a blazing thirst. But my bed felt clammy. At first, the sensation wasn't unpleasant. In fact, I smiled through my headache as I remembered the lost times my daughter Maria had climbed stealthily into my bed and I'd been awoken by this same wetness and smell. Only then did I realise.
Back here, back in Fowey, I made a discreet appointment. I told no one, least of all my children Edward and Maria—and who else is there left to tell? The machines at the clinic sniffed and tutted at me for being the living, breathing anachronism I've wilfully become. And if some special implant or enhancement really would sort out the problems with my sight and this bladder complaint, then, well, I supposed I'd grudgingly submit But I knew something was more seriously amiss when a real, human, doctor entered the bright room. His face was professionally grave as he asked me to sit down.
There are other clinics. Not those which deal with the merely living, but which cater for the nearly dead. In my hurried researches, I found that they are often housed in old buildings which this new century has emptied of their intended purpose. Banks. Churches—the un-firebombed ones, anyway. Once-modern government offices which have escaped the concrete virus. Museums as well. But they all seem so solid now. They make a statement even before you enter them, and that statement echoes as you click along refurbished halls. It shines in the brass plaques which catch your face as you glance into them, amazed to find yourself finally here.
The company I chose to cheat death with, although they would never have used that term, has centres in most of the world's major capitals, as well as a conveniently local—but not too local—office in Bodmin. I was basically anonymous—music only gives you a certain kind of fame—and I submitted to old-fashioned interviews with real people, and rigorous mental and medical assessments, and to group sessions with others of the soon-to-pass. We sat awkwardly in our circles of soft-backed chairs beneath marble heads and goldlists of dignitaries long gone. Death, we were assured, is no longer a final barrier. Life can continue. You can continue. It doesn't require faith, and it certainly doesn't need God. Effort yes, and a little self discipline, and then some money. But what is there which doesn't need those things? Some of us penitents were far older than I was; shuffling landcrabs in their protective wires and carapaces. Some were younger. Some were plainly seriously ill. There was even one child.
I booked myself in for the necessary procedure in mid-August, almost exactly three weeks after my last performance in Sydney, and I wished it were sooner, and worried that I'd left it too late. I almost ran towards the granite pillars of Bodmin's old public hall on the allotted morning, and I was so relieved when the arms of the couch finally closed around me that I scarcely felt afraid. Then I breathed the smell of burnt bone as the crystal seed of my immortality whined its way into my skull.
I kept saying to myself—it was my mantra—that none of this was particularly strange. After all, the dead have long been with us. For centuries, their faces have stared down at us from paintings, and then those paintings became photographs, and the photographs became strips of image, and those images began to move. Soon, the dead were speaking to us from the horns of gramophones; they hovered in the dark of cinemas until they migrated into the glass screens we kept within our homes, and those screens grew cleverer and more reactive until the glass which separated us from their far side began to dissolve. The crystal fields expanded and we, the living, stepped in—or the dead, the passed, have drifted out.
Memories, I've been told, are crucial. Memories are what you are. Forget your worries about what you will become—that will take place anyway—surround yourself instead with things which are important to you, even if they are painful. Submerge yourself in time. Swim in it. Drown. Well, I'm doing that now, sitting at this desk.
My elbows slide. My fingers tremble through brittle hair. Already, the sun is surprisingly high, pushing through the clouds, catching in lazy flashes across the edges of the waves. I can't just sit here. I can't just wait. I have to do something. I can't simply die. I used to know a composer—I used to know many composers, but this was Karl Nordinger—who once told me that the answer to any problem is always there, right in front of you. But what does that mean now, sitting at this desk, in this room, with this man I've rescued—how can any of this ever make any kind of sense?
Shoving things aside, I notice something silvery lying beneath a balled-up Chanel scarf. The stuff we leave behind. A Sony Seashell, a long-defunct kind of personal music player, regards me with its shattered eye. When did I last listen to you? When did you last work? I work open a drawer, shoving the object down beneath reams of staved paper in a kind of burial, but something else blocks the way as I strain to slide the drawer back in. Reaching in and around, I find the culprit and haul it out. An old Smith Kendon barley sugar sweet tin—the sort they used to sell in petrol stations and motorway service areas for those endless journeys people once took in their hand-driven cars. Somehow, tossed aside but never quite thrown away, it's made it across all these years as far as Morryn. The round, bronzy lid resists the scrabble of my feeble fingers, then gives. Flashing with fragile light, it exhales a salty, herby smell.CHAPTER 2
Everybody does it, sis. You know that smell you sometimes get in the front room on Sunday mornings after Mum and Dad have had people round? It's because they've been smoking dope "
Leo and I were sprawled on a rug beneath the withered cherry tree in our back garden one hot summer afternoon. I'd been mimicking my brother's lazy monosyllabism, his arms behind-the-head pose, as we gazed up at the splintered sky. Now, I had to turn. He chuckled.
"You knew that, didn't you? Don't you remember that time you came downstairs and Mum couldn't stop laughing when she carried you back up?"
Excerpted from Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 2008 Ian R. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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