On the front lawn of the hospice, a juvenile seagull picks at the remains of what appears to be a female blackbird. The gull plunges its beak into the breast of the corpse and, after a few moments of frenzied head-jerking, wrenches loose a sticky morsel. Raising its beak to the sky in celebration, it flings wet pieces of sinew through the air and snaps carelessly at the scraps. The dusty down of its torso is streaked and caked into mottled clumps. At its feet, the limp body, open from throat to thigh, spills ribbons of meat onto the dewy grass.
Graham watches from a bench still damp from the overnight drizzle. He pictures long ago birthday dinners. All of them crammed into the kitchen at Harleston Road. Mum placing the trifle bowl in the centre of the dinner table, then handing him a tablespoon with great reverence. His brother David’s hot envy as Graham undertakes that first glorious plunge.
He closes his eyes now and hears the sucking squelch as the spoon cuts through layers of cream and jelly. This is the sound of the gull’s head as it thrusts into the hole in the blackbird’s belly. Graham imagines grabbing fistfuls of custard and sponge and squeezing. Of flicking lumps of the mess from his fingers onto linoleum tiles.
The gull dances around its victim, shaking and spasming to dislodge the gobbets of flesh that clog its feathers. In his studio, Graham can recreate these paroxysms by running strips of denim under a tap to dampen them and then shaking them violently in front of a microphone.
Ambient traffic noise drifts across the grounds from the main road, but he filters this out. Mechanical sounds are the domain of the FX editor and their process is of no interest to him. They scan the digital library and simply copy and paste. Drag and drop. There is no craft involved. They lack the romance, the art, of the foley.
The tree beside his bench is alive with other birds and the swaying of the leaves. He can conjure them into existence by tearing sheets of kitchen paper into strips, placing them in a plastic carrier bag and rustling.
A sparrow flits to the ground, a foot or so away from the gull. Hopping restlessly, it jabs at the earth with its beak, scavenging, whilst in the branches above its brothers gibber anxiously. The gull reacts to this encroachment on its territory by spreading its wings and flapping. An agitated flutter like flailing leather gloves.
Outmatched, the sparrow skips away, jerking its head and dipping its beak into the dirt in search of stray shreds of meat. The gull, its feathers stained with blood, is victorious.
After a short while, Graham heads home.
He is in his studio when Carol comes back. On his computer screen, a homeless man is ushered silently to his feet by a female police officer. All afternoon he has been watching this same few seconds of footage. A microphone is set up a few feet away from him, but he is yet to press record.
Spread across the desk are small piles of fabric: denim, cotton, Velcro, nylon. He will use them to reproduce the rustles of their clothing. He will record this as one track, painstakingly mimicking each of the actor’s movements, except their footsteps, which he will record separately. Graham has stockpiled a range of materials to simulate different surfaces. He has trays of gravel and sand, planks of wood, slabs of stone. He will select a style of shoe from the large collection he has scavenged from charity shops and jumble sales and experiment by stepping on the different surfaces, searching for the right sound. Then, he will synchronise these simulated footsteps with the action on screen. At some point in the future he knows he will do these things, but for now, he just watches and rewinds. Watches and rewinds.
Despite his headphones, he can hear Carol bustling around in the kitchen as she puts away the groceries. The kitchen tap hisses as she fills the kettle.
It is not long before the door of his studio creeps open. He slips off his headphones and pauses the playback. She tiptoes through the maze of props on the floor of the converted garage and places a hand on his shoulder.
‘How bad was it?’ she says.
‘She’s just not there. There’s nothing left of her.’
Carol leans over and kisses him on the top of his head.
‘Not long now, love,’ she says, her lips still pressed against his scalp. She straightens and squeezes his shoulder again. ‘Leave this for now,’ she waves a hand at his workstation. ‘Come inside.’
‘Soon,’ Graham says. ‘It needs finishing.’
On his monitor, the homeless man is paused halfway through rising to his feet. Stuck somewhere in the limbo between lying prone and standing. The officer looms over him but there is no physical contact. Graham presses play and the man is directed slowly to his feet. The officer lifts her hands, summoning him. Graham pauses the footage again. The characters freeze, their faces captured between expressions, unguarded, naked. They are no longer actors. He presses rewind and the homeless man crumples to the ground. A marionette with his strings cut. The police officer backs away out of shot, leaving the huddled mass of man and blankets in peace.
The phone rings during dinner. Its shrill digital bleating cuts through the silence at the table. The intrusion shocking the fork from Graham’s hand and it clatters onto his plate, chipping a sliver of porcelain from the edge and flecking the tablecloth with spots of thin gravy.
Carol pushes herself away from the table, ‘Are you in?’
Graham is at the sink, dampening a dishcloth to stop the gravy staining, when she comes back into the room.
‘It’s David,’ she says, passing him the handset.
Graham drops the damp cloth onto the table, covers the mouthpiece with his palm and offers a weak smile.
‘Of course,’ he says, ‘who else calls during dinner?’
He takes the phone through to the other room, leaving Carol to finish her meal in peace.
‘What’s the news from the future?’ he says. It is a tired joke but each call begins with some strained variant of it.
‘I’ll email you the winning lottery numbers.’ The line is crystal clear. When he had first moved over there, David’s voice on his fortnightly calls home had been tinny and distant, a hollow echo, but these days he could have been calling from the end of the street. ‘How are the middle ages treating you?’
‘Mustn’t grumble,’ Graham says. ‘That dose of the plague seems to have cleared up at last.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Dinnertime. It’s always dinnertime.’ When they were kids, David deemed whatever lay on Graham’s plate as fair game. As soon as Mum’s back was turned, his hand would snake across the Formica table and snag a handful of chips.
‘Tax,’ he’d say through a potatoey grin.
Once he had managed to grab a whole sausage, dripping thick globs of onion gravy. Instinctively, Graham had jabbed his fork into the back of David’s hand. There had been a moment of stunned silence before the four tine-holes welled with thick red blood and his brother had started wailing. Graham had clenched his eyes closed in anticipation of the eruption of his mother’s fury, but when he opened them, her hand was over her mouth, suppressing a silent giggle.
‘Six of one and a half dozen of the other,’ she’d said, after dropping the stolen sausage in the bin and running David’s hand under the cold tap for several minutes. The resolution left both of her sons with a sense of seething injustice.
Even now, separated by ten thousand miles, David has the uncanny knack of disrupting meal times.
‘Well, as far as I’m concerned it’s Sunday morning and the perfect weather for a drive up the coast,’ David says.
‘It’s summer,’ he says, and then, ‘Did you see her this week?’
‘Twice,’ Graham says.
‘And? How is she doing?’
Graham pauses. He knows his brother cannot understand. He has been gone for such a long time that the picture he holds of their mother is that of a woman who no longer exists. Finally, he says, ‘There’s little change.’
‘Is she comfortable?’
‘As much as can be expected.’
‘They show Panorama over here, you know. I’ve seen what they get up to in those places.’
‘It’s not like that. They’re very good. The nurses are very,’ Graham gropes for the right word but settles on, ‘attentive.’
‘Good. That’s good,’ David says, and then, ‘does she mention me at all?’
‘No,’ Graham says. He has been expecting this.
He can detect the irritating sound of hurt in his brother’s voice. He does not tell him that she no longer knows who any of them are. That Graham is there at least twice a week without fail, and that she once screamed and pressed her alarm button when he entered her room. Instead, he says, ‘Not really.’
‘I see,’ David says, but Graham knows that he does not see. How could he? There is far too much distance. Far too much air between them.
He finds the tapes in the bottom of a crumpled cardboard box when he is clearing out the garage of the new house. The new house. No matter that his parents moved from Harleston Road more than twenty years ago, this would always be the new house.
There are stacks of them. The tapes. None of the labels are on straight. His mum must have done that. His father would have used his thumbnail to smooth out the creases and the air bubbles. They are all brands that he has not seen for years. Memorex. Ariston. The ink on the labels has faded leaving only the ghost of his mother’s handwriting. He thinks he can make out the word ‘Morse’ on several of them. Taped from the telly. Graham remembers showing them how to punch in the videoplus numbers so they would never miss an episode, even if they stayed later than usual at the club.
On some of the labels, Graham can just about decipher vague dates. June/July ‘88 or Christmas. He collects these tapes and places them in the boot of his car. He has an analogue converter in his studio and will be able to watch them there.
He tips the Morse tapes into a black sack. Not even the charity shops will take them anymore.
In his studio, Graham hooks up the leads of the converter to his workstation. He places the June/July ‘88 tape into the machine and presses play. There is the silent crackle of static on the screen before the living room at Harleston Road rolls vertically into view. The camera sways around the room before fixing on his father, ensconced in his chair in the far corner. A silvery cloud of cigar smoke pools above him. His face wades into focus as the camera pans. He bats it away as if it were some nuisance fly, but he is smiling.
Then he is gone.
On the screen now is a beach. There is something amiss with the contrast and the sand seems too bright. The sky is white. This must be from one of their day trips to Harwich. David and Graham kneel in the foreground. They wear matching swimming trunks. Graham can’t be more than eight or nine. The boys are constructing a sand city. They are caked in drying granules that glitter like shattered glass. Their hair dangles in twisted, salty knots.
The camera moves in close to the boys and for a second the pink blur of a stray thumb obscures the top corner of the screen. David turns, grinning, to the camera. He waves manically. Graham, concentration etched on his face, lifts his bucket. The sandcastle that emerges stands perfectly formed for a second or two, and then the ramparts crumple.
There is no sound in the videos. He spends all afternoon planning how to restore these short silent vignettes. Of how to piece together these fragments of his childhood. He makes notes on how he could replicate the wet slap of bare soles on sand. How he could simulate the heavy thud of a child’s palm on an upturned bucket.
In all of these videos, Graham’s hair is blonder than he remembers. In all of these videos, his mother is behind the camera. That one fleeting glimpse of blurry thumb is all there is of her.
Simeon Ralph is a writer, lecturer and musician with the noise-rock band Fashoda Crisis. Currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at MMU his work has recently appeared in The Ekphrastic Review and Riggwelter Press. Originally from Essex, he now lives in Norwich.