In Transmission, Charlotte Rumsey brings us a sombre vision of insomnia, solitude and secret messages.
I started to drive up here because I couldn‘t sleep. I’d forgotten how thick the silence can get, in the suburbs…
Read the story after the jump.
3756 kHz. A soft crackle and a regular electronic blip, the rhythm of a slightly accelerated heart beat. I keep one hand — holding the dictaphone, ready to record — on the stack of Slavic dictionaries piled up on the seat beside me. The other hangs a lit cigarette out of the window. With my eyes fixed on a point in the middle distance and the wind blowing flecks of hot ash at the back of my hand, I sit back and wait.
I started to drive up here because I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how thick the silence can get, in the suburbs. Lying in the dark I could feel it pressing against my temples, bearing down on my eyelids. I don’t suppose being back at home helped. Stretched out on the narrow bed with the icons of my youth still plastered across the walls, every night felt as though I’d never left that room. Like I’d just woken up, with seven years of memory drifting off into the dark like a dream. So that Monday night, I slipped out of the side gate and quietly rolled my grandmother’s old Nissan Micra out of the drive. My parents probably heard anyway and more than likely didn’t care – I am 25 – but I liked the pretence. To be seventeen again, sneaking out to meet Alex with a packet of cigarettes. Every now and again we would come up here, the two of us, and sit on the bonnet of the green Fiesta in our duffel coats, listening to the radio and smoking. I try not to think about that. We were very young.
I discovered the blip at 13.52 that morning, two weeks after his funeral. It was strange, but from the day he died to the moment we put him in the ground, I had actually struggled to stay awake. I didn’t think about anything that week. I only had to sit down and I would be dead to the world in a matter of seconds. In a way it was lucky the car had been a write-off, I’d have probably killed someone driving in that state.
It wasn’t until after the wake that this uneasiness set in. A sort of vague, unsettled feeling. I couldn’t call it grief, because I felt very little, but suddenly I had to plough all my concentration into not thinking about it. I tried not to think about anything, if I could help it. I forgot to go back to work. I didn’t answer the phone. I spent ten days in our flat, staring at the space in front of the television or looking at the flake of plaster on the ceiling above our bed. My parents started to worry and brought me home.
So, after three more sleepless nights and four hollow days — this time in the house I grew up in — I escaped. I stopped off at the petrol station on the corner, bought my first packet of cigarettes since Alex and I left the sixth form and wound my way up Death Mile in the dark. The twin beams of the headlights glanced off the floral tributes and decaying photographs of the eternal young that litter the route. They are pinned to the trees at every bend in the road, those shrines.
The memorials tail off as you reach the Downs, where the road straightens out and levels off into an open space overlooking the suburbs, the city glittering in the distance. The gravel car park that sits right at the edge is usually a popular nightspot for insomniacs and truck drivers, but that night I was alone. I spent twenty minutes scrolling through the radio — anything to stop me from thinking — before I became nauseated by the sound of it. I don’t know who they think tunes in at that hour, but if you don’t like The Police or Barry White, it’s not for you. So I flicked, on impulse, to 924.7 on the short wave, and found it, quite by accident. The blip. 3756 kHz. The beautiful regularity of the pulse — 83 beats per minute against the delicate crackle of dead air — pushed everything clear out of my head. I still couldn’t sleep, but after a few minutes the beat induced a kind of stasis that was a good enough substitute. I sat for hours, not really listening, just letting it drown out everything else, every thought and every memory, until I saw the sun rise over the houses and the street lights start to blink out of existence below. My cigarette had burned down to the stub and fallen out of my fingers onto the gravel, unsmoked.
It became a habit. I came back the next night, and the night after that. Never before sundown — that was the rule, self-imposed. I thought daylight might shatter its spell, that it might not be the same again. I no longer felt any need to sleep, even during the day; this nervous coma was more of a relief than the short stints of dreamless semiconsciousness I had been surviving on. I still carried a cold knot of anxiety all through the day, but just a few minutes of that beating, electronic heart in the dark above the town and it was gone. The increasing levels of concern in my parents eyes suggested that I was starting to look like a wreck.
On the fourth night it changed.
I was listening to the blip; it was cold out and the breeze was drifting cigarette smoke through the open window, when I heard a click. I became aware of something, through the haze, but I didn’t know what. The incessant crackle of the transmission had merged into something else, a sort of shuffling interspersed with a quiet hiss; boxes being dragged across a dusty floor. Then I realised. The blip had stopped. I sat up with a start. My sleeve was on fire.
The cigarette had caught on the cuff of my jumper and was smouldering against my wrist, melting the acrylic onto my skin. I watched it for a second before I realised that pissing hell it was excruciatingly painful. I dropped the stub out of the window and started frantically patting out the little fire with my other hand, swearing. The driver of a white van parked over by the trees gawped, a Ginster’s pasty lolling out of his gaping maw. Filled with a sudden, irrational rage, I wanted to go over there and ram the thing down his ugly throat. I think I might have done, if I hadn’t heard it.
“Не получаю генератор”
The voice was young, male. I stopped, my smoking arm hanging out the window and my other hand on the door handle. I held my breath and waited with my heart in my throat. Every hair on my body stood on end. I heard footsteps, through the speaker; the faint opening and closing of a door. A moment’s silence. A click. The blip resumed.
I sat back and took a deep breath, looking out of the windscreen. I blew absently on my wrist, where a nasty looking burn had blistered up out of the flesh. I tried not to think about it. About him. But for the first time in weeks I felt a twinge of something like pain; not from my arm, but somewhere in the pit of my stomach. Because I knew that voice. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew that voice.
* * * * *
I pick up the dictaphone and turn it over in my hand. It’s been a week. Nothing. That faint crackle and steady blip that once gave me such peace is now an almost constant source of irritation. I joined the library, took out every Slavic dictionary and phrasebook I could find. I’ve looked through them all, but I don’t even know what language he was speaking, let alone what he said.
In frustration I broke the rule. I switched on the kitchen radio while Mum was in the garden, yesterday, in broad daylight. It didn’t really matter; the spell of the blip had already been shattered. Now I want the voice.
I do know that it seems crazy. I know I haven’t had a lot of sleep. I obviously can’t explain why he was speaking a language neither of us knew. But I’m not delusional. I know who I heard. A pale blue line is showing above the horizon now. In an hour, the traffic will have started on the main road, the other side of the Mile. People driving to work, kissing their wives goodbye, living their lives. My time is up. I toss the dictaphone onto the seat and turn the key in the ignition.
* * * * *
Death Mile is a dark, gaping mouth, made worse by the light of the dawn. The trees are its teeth and the tarmac its spitting tongue. I rub my eyes. My head feels a little funny; lack of sleep. I want to go home. I want to go back to our home, our flat in the city, where it is never quiet and the streets may kill you but at least they don’t swallow you whole. But I can’t go home. There’s nothing there. It will always be quiet, it’ll never be ours. He’ll never walk out of the bathroom, or through the front door, no matter how long I stare at the flake of plaster on the ceiling above our bed, waiting. I’ll probably never hear his voice again either. It was just a hallucination, the voice, brought on by insomnia and grief. My hands are shaking and something is blurring my vision, but I carry on down the treacherous stretch regardless, half blind and sobbing.
I hear a click. The blip has stopped. I make a grab for the dictaphone but it’s fallen off into the foot well; it’s too late.
“Идёт такая, работа от аппаратной.”
I straighten up in my seat, leaving the little grey box to slide under the chair. I realise I don’t need it anyway. I don’t need the phrasebooks. I don’t need the dictionaries. He could be speaking latin for all the difference it makes. I understand. Of course I know what he’s saying. How I could not have known from the start? It is not a message, it is a request; it is a plea.
I shut off the headlights. I drive for a second through the darkness — it’s pitch black, right at the heart of the Mile, the trees thick overhead — before I take a short, sharp breath, slam my foot down on the accelerator and swing the wheel hard to the left. The sound is straight out of a film; the screech of tires and the unmistakable scream of metal wrapping around a solid object. There must have been an impact but I didn’t feel it. I can hear steam hissing out of the bonnet and feel something warm running down my face; blood, I think, and tears. The radio has been flung out of its socket and hangs on by a wire like an eyeball. I can hear the static, the shifting of the boxes, a short cough.
“Это один четыре три, вы получаете более.”
I lay my forehead against the steering wheel and draw my hands into my lap. My head, despite the dull thump of blood, is clear for the first in a very long time. He just sits there, the Russian, at the microphone; I can hear him breathing, a million miles away. In Russia, most likely. Every now and then he reads a short statement. Coordinates, I guess. A shipping forecast or a military relay. I guess from his voice — now that I actually listen to it — that he is middle-aged. I wonder if he knows the terrible mistake I’ve made, if he feels sorry for me. I don’t think I care. I close my eyes and listen for the sirens. There are none. It’s the middle of the pissing country and no one knows I’m here. I feel a great wave of relief that I will at least die alone, not surrounded by strangers. That’s how Alex died. Lying in the middle of the road, surrounded by strangers. I feel a bit bad about my nan’s car, but it was crap anyway.
There’s another voice coming from the speaker. English, obviously. I laugh and a tooth falls out of my mouth. “Why the hell would I be speaking Russian?” I shut my eyes.