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His feet made sounds everywhere he went. On the landings of the stairwell they went clip, clip, clip. Going up the rubber-treaded stairs they went hup, hup, hup. In the carpeted corridors they went hrrmmp, hrrmmp, hrrmmp. In the toilet with ‘gentlemen’ written on the door in bold black lettering they went chip, chip, chip, chipping away at the tiles.
There was a different sound for every area of the building. The floor of his office used the same medium-thickness blue carpeting as the hallway, so the sound of his feet was the same hrrmmp, hrrmmp, hrrmmp that it was out there, a clothed sound.
He measured his days by the sounds his feet made in the quiet.
The first day he wore his new washed-finish brogues it wasn’t so bad, because the sounds were very much the same, except there was a tiny screech of new leather added onto the tail end of each clip, or hup, or hrrmmp, or chip. But that was okay. It didn’t intrude too much on his sense of things being in order.
On the asphalt of the car park round the side of the building, it was scrooch-eek, scrooch-eek, scrooch-eek. No, it was more like scrooeekch, scrooeekch, scrooeekch as the squeak came midway through the step. The limitation imposed upon any form of expression by linear, chronological language is stultifying. But that scrooeekch is about right. The scrooch was made by the gravelly floor and the eek inserted between the final o and the crunchy ch was the sound of his new leather shrieking as it was stretched to accommodate his walking patterns and the shape of his feet.
At home the carpet was thicker, newer, absorbed the shock of the sole a little better than the carpet at work. His feet went huahh, huahh, huahh, a kind of aspiration, like his feet were out of breath, exhausted from a day of walking. When the new shoes came off and he walked in socks only, the sound was gentler still, a whispering sigh, hh, hh, hh.
There was nothing in the world like listening to this gentle, calming sound at the end of the day in the bedroom as everything that was crowding one’s mind began to drift abstractly and dissolve in the silent air. He would unlace the shoes and place them under the bed, and move about the room getting undressed and folding his clothes away.
The obsessions that helped his wife get through the day were more wide-ranging and inclusive. She enjoyed, as her favourite sounds, the extended shlorping of hot water poured from a kettle over a tea bag in a mug; the sound of curtains drawn ssssssling across a smooth, varnished wooden curtain-rail (the rings attaching the curtain to the rail would have to be varnished too); the song ‘Sing It Back’ by Moloko when turned to volume level 2 on the car radio, the meditative hmmmm of the car engine adding a continuous muffled bass line; dogs chirping like small birds in the distance, their barking made tiny and insignificant by space.
She also enjoyed certain sights as well, such as the way a windmill on the horizon looked like a thin handheld fan, and the way it made her think about how it must be pushing the air round in circles. Other sights she liked were: flags fluttering in the wind like flames, as well as the varying sounds they made as they whipped against themselves (these sounds are too intricate and extensive to replicate here, unless you want to be bored. It would go something like this: fffllliipiiiickkarcherrrrierrrrrflflllllllliiiiiiiippppfliphhpppiittyrrriiipp and so on for up to hundreds or thousands of pages); the sight of old people talking, the way the wrinkled, dried skin around their mouths cracks and erupts like the earth opening up during an earthquake; and the detail of tobacco burning at the open end of a cigarette, the flakes and shavings curling and turning darker and then to grey and white ash and then falling.
‘How was your day?’ she said from the doorway. He was sat on the bed stretching out his toes and pushing them floorwards. The knot of his tie was at his chest, deflated and sad-looking. His shoes were tucked beneath the bed. Hazel had been wearing open-heeled slippers for at least forty-five minutes now since getting home herself, which was how he had known she was coming. Fffrrttthuahh, fffrrttthuahh, fffrrttthuahh and so on down the short corridor that led to the bedrooms from the kitchen.
‘The new brogues are fine, thanks,’ Ambrose Fogarty said. Amongst friends he was known as Fog. ‘My toes are a little bruised. Possibly there’s a blister or two in the making.’
‘But other than that.’
‘Yes, fine, really.’
They sat and stood for a moment in silence, thinking of the shoes, and then Ambrose remembered something.
‘Oh, Haze,’ he said, as if she were on her way down the corridor even though she was stood in the same place, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe. ‘Mark Twain said to say hi.’
She laughed and said, ‘His moustache hairs are like long strings of cigar tobacco. I could set them alight and watch them burn.’
His name was Baldric Blevins, but Ambrose and Hazel had christened him Mark Twain for the furry growth on his upper lip and that grouchy old man gaze to his hooded eyes.
‘He knows about that,’ said Ambrose.
‘You told him?’
‘He keeps wondering aloud when you’re actually going to sneak into his house at night and set fire to his face.’
‘Tell him soon,’ she said.
They giggled together for a moment, and then let the still air sit there between them unmoved.
‘I heard a sound you would have liked to hear today,’ said Hazel. She had crossed her arms low against the upper portion of her slim belly.
‘Yes, I did.’
He waited and then she said, ‘There was a man at work today who died. He was only an inspector or something, walking around with his clipboard all morning, writing little notes and asking questions of all of us. Just health and safety things. I think the company he was working for were doing an audit as well, because there were men in the office speaking to Jerry and Francine, looking through papers with them.’
Hazel walked slowly over to the window behind Ambrose. Fffrrttthuahh and so on across the soft cream carpet, vacuumed only the day before.
Looking out the window, she said, ‘Oh that’s lovely. You should see how clotted the sky is with clouds, like cream in a bowl. The clouds are so white they’re almost black.’
‘What about this man who died?’ said Ambrose. He wanted not to listen suddenly. He wanted to hear the sound of his toes pressing into the carpet fibres and the sounds of the acids in his stomach burping and gggwwarrrrgggling. Just light, tender, end of the day sounds.
‘He had a name tag,’ said Hazel. ‘So that his company could say that they were friendly, that they weren’t looking to catch anybody out, just to ensure that safety standards were being met and the quality of the products was good. His name was Mike.’
‘And what was the sound?’
‘He was a bald man, maybe fifty years old,’ as if she were ignoring him. ‘He wore a nice short-sleeved white shirt. Crisp, ironed that morning. You could tell. I liked to look at that shirt because there wasn’t the slightest ripple or crease in the material. It was like card.’
‘The sound,’ Ambrose urged. Hazel continued to watch the sky out of the window. When she swallowed, her throat squirmed. ‘I need the sound,’ said Ambrose. ‘Or I won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’
‘They said it was a heart attack,’ she said. ‘The girls. But we won’t know for sure until the coroner releases his findings. He was on the floor suddenly when, just a moment before, he had been talking to me. He was there, standing up like any man, with his deep voice and his rimless spectacles that had come a little way down the bridge of his nose. I could almost see his whole eyeballs over the top of the lenses. But then suddenly he was on his side. His clipboard clattered on the floor like a trolley cart overturning. And his arm was caught underneath his body at a funny angle.’
‘Damn it, Haze! I need the sound. God damn it.’
Ambrose had been perspiring for at least five sentences now. He pulled the tie off completely and flung it onto the bed beside him, feeling that it had been choking him even though his throat was freer than a country-road telephone pole. He thrust his upper body around so that he could look at the back of his wife, whose body was much more like a murder weapon than Ambrose had ever before supposed.
‘Will you give me the sound?’ said Ambrose. ‘Because if not, I just don’t know what I’ll do with what you’ve told me.’
She said dreamily, ‘I was down on my knees by his head, leaning over him. I thought, this man – Mike – must be dead. But his eyes were open, and then he started to blink. He was looking far off past my right knee. It was like he was looking at something beyond the wall that stood in his way. And his big neck was rather swollen.’
Ambrose stood up. He was thinking, in this moment of sickness, of flinging himself at Hazel and knocking her out of the window. She would smash through and sprinkle the ground along with the broken glass.
‘His lips opened,’ she said, drawing out the moment, ripping Ambrose apart. ‘They opened, just a little, and he emitted this sound that was like, like a garbage disposal unit on volume two. You know, the way I like my song played in the car. Very quiet, but just loud enough so you can hear all the perfect detail. It seems very liquid when played that low. And that’s what came out of his voice box, what passed through those thin pink lips. It was liquid sound, a harsh guttural garbage disposal sound.’
Ambrose sat down on the bed, almost in tears. His heart blub blubbed ferociously, like a sobbing child, sobbing blood in streams.
Hazel said, her voice becoming distant, ‘It was like this.’
She parted her pale pink, softly pink lips and went kkkkhhhhrrrllllrrllllkkkkhhhh. The centre portion, where the sound changed momentarily, was where the guttural gurgling choked on its own ragged beginnings. Kkkkhhhhrrrllllrrllllkkkkhhhh.