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Sooner or later, everyone has to hear their voice for the first time.
I mean, of course, that they have to hear it outside their own head, the way it sounds to everyone else. As rights of passage go it might be pretty mundane; it doesn’t happen at any accepted time and nor through any accepted means, since the means change all the time. The results are pretty much universal, though. And I think this is one of those cases where the popular wisdom holds true – it’s not an experience that anyone enjoys. I certainly didn’t, anyway. They say they when Scott de Martinville first patented the phonograph and recorded himself singing “Au clair de la lune,” it never occurred to him that someone might want to play it back, less still that 150 years later, people would invent a means of doing so. I think he may have had the right idea.
Every once in a while, I try to dredge the memory back up again. Sometimes it’s as clear and sharp as a shard of glass, but other times I feel I’ve left behind another detail. Gradually, it seems, it’s reduced to this: the cassette itself, its casing made of a creamy off-white plastic; the front-loading tape recorder that hinged stiffly open when you pressed a grooved section in its uppermost corner; the window made of a sort of tinted glass like a limo window, through which you could see the spools of tape rotating, set in its surround which, I think, was red. It might have been orange. With its lurid colours and its cheap and brittle plastic, the whole thing must only ever have been meant as a children’s toy.
Audio cassettes would have been on their way out by then, though. It was already some time in the mid-90s. But you weren’t about to give a pair of restless children a CD, tell them to go off and play with that, since it offered none of the tactile pleasures, none of the moving parts.
So we sat on the floor of my bedroom, I guess, but it might have been Lucy’s bedroom. For a while, Lucy’s bedroom was both of ours, a storm having driven a great tree branch into mine and knocked the window clean out of its frame, taking a big piece of the wall with it. Looking back now, it seems as though it took months, or possibly years, before the damage was repaired.
I’m quite sure, either way, that by her long-standing right or privilege, Lucy got to go first. This, I always seem to remember, was just the way things were, and only much later did I learn what a strange thing it was. She was two years younger than me, after all, but this didn’t stop her from telling me in a stern voice that I ought to be careful not to “tape over it.” This could only have meant not to overwrite what she had recorded, although the meaning of the phrase – to tape over something – was opaque to me then, just as it would be to my own daughter now. One of those odd remnants of the way we used to speak, like a vestigial limb. Rewind the video. Hang up the phone. Turn down that noise.
When I think back through all my memories of that tape, I’m often tempted to start in the middle where things begin to firm up. Not at the moment that started everything, all grass-clipping sweet and sticky, when Lucy and I recorded our voices one afternoon at the start of a summer holiday that seemed to unspool ahead of us, so long and empty that it interrupted the very idea of time running in a straight line. I think instead of a time years later, when I found it at the bottom of a drawer, back in that childhood bedroom with its non-original window. I was cleaning things out, trying to impose some discipline on the place with a black bin bag and music playing through a laptop speaker before I left for university a week or two later.
“There’s no need,” our mother had said. “Just leave it.”
Not just the tape I was turning over in my hands by then, but everything. She assured me she didn’t want to start rooting through my things as soon as she’d dropped me off, earmarking those items which would be unmissed and better appreciated by the British Heart Foundation. I believed her, too. I didn’t imagine that in my absence, my mother would want to do anything but have a glass of wine and eat spaghetti bolognese, newly alone with Lucy. But I felt like I needed to root through things all the same, sift through and evaluate everything as a kind of courtesy. Whether it was a courtesy to myself, to our mother, or even to Lucy, I’m not particularly sure.
An absurd notion struck me when I retrieved the tape from the drawer, sure it was the same one which had Lucy’s voice and mine on it from all those summers before. I thought of the only cassette player I could remember seeing recently, the dusty tape deck in the dashboard of my car, another of those stupid anachronisms. I had bought the car, a dark blue hatchback, weeks after passing my test, with money I saved from my weekend job at a bakery. And then I had sold it, just days prior to finding the tape. I chided my own foolhardiness at doing this, since the car was the only place I could reasonably expect to listen to it, all cassette-playing apparatus having been purged from our house for years by that point. To tell the truth, I didn’t even know if the car’s tape deck worked in the first place.
So I didn’t want to throw it out – did I know, then, the finer details of what was on it? – and I didn’t want to leave it behind either. To throw it out would be crass, but to leave it behind, a cassette in a house with no cassette player, would be ridiculous, no matter how convinced I was that it wouldn’t come to any harm. So the tape came with me, destined for a long and uncertain life, wherein the only constant would be its being deposited into the bottoms of drawers, varying only in the kind of cheap and peeling wood veneer that covered them, and in the thicknesses of useless paper which would be piled on top of it until the plastic of its housing started to creak. Quite a bit later still, I would be relieved that this was the worst treatment it got and that I didn’t, in an idle or angry of self-destructive moment, throw it aside, use it as a coaster, or simply crack it open for the tactile joy of pulling out all the tape and allowing it to heap up in a great celluloid pile in the middle of the tiny desk in my tiny student room.
When our mother drove me to university, four hours or so away, Lucy didn’t come with us. Looking back now this seems to me a peculiar thing, but I can’t remember if it came as a surprise at the time. There was that strangely business-like way my mum would always go about anything that threatened to get emotional, the clunk as she took off the handbrake more crisply than she needed to, the way she asked again and again if I had everything I needed. And then there was Lucy, and the way she looked as she stood in the doorway, not waving, just watching, pulling her cardigan more closely around her as an early-autumnal wind tugged at its hems and ruffled her hair.
When Lucy declared herself done and she passed the microphone over to me, I became shy. It’s difficult to imagine why this was, since it was before I had even heard what I sounded like – I couldn’t have known, at this point, the miniature crisis that awaited me when the tape was played back. The microphone must have been tiny, probably fashioned from the same cheap and clacky plastic as the tape recorder itself. And Lucy looked expectantly at me, and all the words and phrases I knew disappeared from my head. I had some feeling that this was supposed to be a momentous occasion – whatever you do, don’t tape over anything – and that whatever hidden meaning it might have, unknown at the time to me, I should nevertheless try my best not to make a mess of it.
And then something happened, which was that Lucy just got up and walked out of the room. Or did it? Am I remembering the events up until this point correctly? Did Lucy in fact look at me, with brightness and expectation in her eyes, along with a wisp or two of her blonde fringe, or is this something I’ve tacked onto the memory at some point in the intervening years? A kind of self-flagellation, perhaps; of course Lucy was playing sweetly and kindly; of course she was filled with a hope that I would later dash; of course our game was harmless right up until the very moment I ruined everything. It could be that we didn’t record our pieces at the same time at all, or even on the same day, or – and this doesn’t seem so unlikely, really – Lucy recorded hers alone, dropped the microphone and walked abruptly from the room, never expecting this to be a shared activity at all, not interested enough to hear whatever it was I had to say.
At any rate, the next solid memory is indisputable enough. A matter of sturdy, private record. Perhaps not immediately to hand, but I could buy a personal cassette player online and have it shipped here if I wanted to. I could probably even learn how to convert the tape to mp3, practically making sure I have it forever. Another of those peculiar ironies of our times – tangible objects are unstable and unreliable, vulnerable to damage by fire and water and air or the jostling contents of a drawer, and intangible rows of ones and zeros that you can’t see or touch are pretty much there forever. All of this if I had any doubt as to what I’d hear if I played the tape again, and I don’t.
So I lifted the plasticky microphone to my mouth, no doubt holding it closer than I needed to, or speaking louder than I needed to, or both. Like someone who had just discovered the telephone. Enunciating clearly and loudly, then, maybe with a sudden burst of inspiration, maybe a nervous impulse, or maybe a careful consideration of the immediate consequences – not the long-term ones, I have to allow myself this at least – I’m quite certain that I said “Lucy, if you’re listening to this, I hate you.”
It would make sense that after Lucy died, my thoughts would come immediately to the tape, still safely sequestered in the fifth or sixth drawer of its life. By now, it was a drawer in the desk – flat-pack and hollow to the touch – that came with the room I was renting in a shared house in east London. Dumped in there, no doubt, from a box requisitioned from a supermarket, smelling faintly of bananas and packed with loose sheaves of papers and a few other things, all decanted by the overflowing handful.
It never really seemed as important as all that, though. Probably, neither the idea nor the reality of the tape occurred to me until long after the dust had settled. It turned out that losing a sibling is hard and drawn-out work, with little or no time for private reflection against the tide of arrangements and paperwork.
Besides, Lucy never did have much to say for herself. Even now, when I remember her, I seldom remember her talking. I remember other things, silly and inconsequential things like the way her sleeves always seemed to be stretched and frayed from her playing with them all the time, or the way she would sometimes stop eating to tap her fork against the rim of her plate, as though there was something clinging to it which only she could see.
Things with her hands. So when I finally did get around to sorting through my mingled reminders of Lucy, the tape still wasn’t among the first of them. In the same drawer, probably, on top of it, I found various other mementoes of her, even the occasional scrap of her handwriting. This was odd, since neither of us was really in the habit of writing to the other more than once or twice a year. Even on our birthdays, we had taken to buying cards for each other online, moving the text boxes around with a mouse, picking cards with crass jokes and selecting the typefaces which most resembled human handwriting. One I sent to Lucy read “Less years to live, less fucks to give,” which inside I had corrected to “fewer.”
How much time passed before the tape was first played back? It can’t have been long, but I also don’t think it was immediate. I probably couldn’t work out for myself how to do this, so Lucy and our mother must have been there, but I don’t think there was a great deal of ceremony about it. Most likely our mother had instigated this in the first place – I doubt that either of us would have maintained much interest in the tape and its contents for long afterward, our attention spans pretty much as slender and as vanishing as was typical for two little girls, close in age, left often to entertain themselves and each other for a long summer holiday at home.
I’m told that the normal reaction – particularly when the subject in question is just a child, but even Edison must have had a moment of doubt – is outright denial. That’s not my voice. I don’t sound like that at all. But I don’t think this was the case for me; not enough time had passed to make this plausible. I knew very well that I was the one who had said those words into the microphone, even though the sound of my own voice was jarring through the fizz of the tinny little speaker. And even if this wasn’t the case, there was always that tell-tale excess of air I always had on my ss sounds until I was a teenager. “I hate you, Lushey.”
A different sister might have lost her mind. Some sisters do quarrel openly, with fists and yells and claws, but that would never be Lucy’s way. Not Lucy, who I’m told – I can’t remember – was exceptionally mild as a baby, and who only retracted further into herself as the years drew on, always reading, sometimes baking, never really at ease with raised voices and loud noises. Not Lucy, who drew picket-fence fork lines into the food on her plate, who untied the laces of her shoes carefully instead of kicking them off and fell asleep in the back seat of the car with her headphones in, no music ever playing through them. I must always have been the louder and angrier one, which would only make this descent into psychological warfare that much more shocking. Not even calling Lucy a rude name, not shouting a swear word into the microphone just because I could, and because I had a poor understanding of how clearly the tape would incriminate me.
Just a straightforward, undiluted and undissolved hatred. Lucy, I hate you. If you’re listening to this, that is. If you’re listening to this. As though I had imagined a time when this message could be enjoyed by Lucy alone, without my being present to clarify its contents. To answer any questions she might have. As though I had imagined, looking decades into the future, that it would be Lucy, not me, who had squirrelled the tape away in the bottom of a drawer, allowing enough time to pass that a natural curiosity would build in her. And only then, only when she had somehow procured a 21st century means of playing back a 20th century technology, would she hear her sister’s voice coming to her from beyond the grave. Just in case you’d forgotten, Lucy. Just in case you wished you could talk to me one last time. I hate you.
And so again I remember only that Lucy went quiet, that she got up and walked out of the room without a word, and she left me this time alone with our mother, her face fixed into a rictus of outright disbelief, and which would take me a lifetime of recollection to decipher in full.
The last time I listened to the tape was years ago now. I made sure not to take it out on any occasion that felt significant, like the anniversary of the day Lucy died, her birthday or anything like that. The weird migration of cassette players in and out – mostly out – of my life made sure of this much; that listening to our voices was only ever an opportunistic affair. It wasn’t something I would ever plan in advance, set up as some solemn moment of punishment or commemoration. Well, I would think instead, I might as well play the tape again, just to be sure of whatever it is I’m sure of, while the opportunity is here.
And so the time came when we were sorting through a box of things that my husband had retrieved from his parents’ house – they were downsizing, not dead. And he would lift items one-by-one from the box, seemingly asking “is this even mine?” of every second thing, until eventually I got frustrated with waiting and started to paw through things myself. I closed my hand almost immediately over an ancient Walkman – not even his, I thought, since it was probably older than he was – and went running off to the drawer in the kitchen where I knew I would find a pair of AA batteries. And the tape, of course, was in the bottom of a different drawer, just where I knew I could reasonably expect to find it.
As I turned the cassette over in my hand, as deftly as an amateur magician with a pack of cards, I noticed that there was now a visible crack along the top edge, and it seemed to signal to me that whatever I did with it from here on out, I was down to my last few plays. I handled it as delicately as an egg, and I blew a great wad of dust clear from the Walkman before I gingerly slid the tape inside and closed the case.
And all of the details were there, just as they had been there in my mind – frayed around the edges, perhaps, some of the finer points beginning to degrade, but all the key pieces in place, in the order I remembered them.
The sound was fuzzier than I could have imagined – while I remembered it had been harsh and tinny to listen to from the beginning, the tape seemed now to hold almost nothing but static. And I heard what must have been Lucy’s voice, saying “my name is–” before it was cut off by a second voice which could only have been my own.
I sat there at the kitchen table, rewinding the tape and playing it back several times, sitting patiently through the minute or so of noise before Lucy’s voice crackled through. Yes, inevitably I had done exactly what Lucy had cautioned me against and taped over the last part of her, but my own contribution was so brief that she couldn’t have spoken for more than a few seconds. And how brief it was seemed to have been further whittled away by the passage of time, the movement in and out of drawers and underneath piles of paper, and the accumulation of dust. Just a few shrill words, really, almost impossible to make out. “Lushey, something, something.” Lucy, crackle, crackle.
I thought about how easily I could make sure I would never listen to the tape again. I could pop it out and crush it under a heel, or throw it in boiling water, or cut it clean into two pieces with a heavy kitchen knife.
I had popped open the Walkman and was sitting there looking at the visible strip of celluloid between the sides of the cream plastic case when my husband came into the kitchen. He looked down at me, looking at the tape.
About James Reay Williams
James Reay Williams is a freelance writer and editor based in Helsinki.