Human Noise by Bruce Harris

THEY WALKED A ROUND TRIP from Seathwaite to Scafell Pike, mostly in silence, and especially when standing at Scafell Pike, 3600 feet and the highest point in England, the day clear enough for them to make out the Isle of Man. Kate loved the views, the air and the exercise. She saw her spasmodic comfort food indulgence as an occupational hazard of counselling, but at thirty-three, she could still afford a robust approach to weight control, walking the hills and valleys or sweating in the gym. Mark's swimming, now an integral part of his job, enhanced the natural fitness of a twenty-seven year old and the whole walk hardly increased his heart rate. On a final stroll to the car, she watched him with that oddly disconcerting mixture of desire and anxiety he seemed to arise in her. Cinders of last night's lust were still alight; full naked love-making in the comfort of the hotel room, and as she watched his easy trudge she thought how even sensible walking clothes couldn't entirely disguise the sheer beautiful vitality of his body. He'd burst some flood gate inside her she hadn't even realised was closed, taking her beyond previous highs with such expertise and consideration that a little twist of insecurity in her wondered at the extent of his experience. Love and anxiety yet again.

But his demons were still with him; something still detached and preoccupied him even in their most intimate moments. She knew from her experience the incompatibility of loving and counselling; professional objectivity was beyond her in his case. His major demon she knew about, and from his own lips; for the others, she could be patient, though his silences remained difficult to read and the barriers were too frequently exasperating. As they drove back to the hotel, his dark eyes and tanned face seemed to be registering the contempt of an athlete for the walk's lack of challenge rather than the satisfaction of a day well spent.

But Mark's actual feeling, accompanied by a now quite familiar sense of alienation from the person he'd always understood himself to be, centred on antipathy to returning human noise. The walks were Kate's idea and Kate's regular practice, but he knew one powerful reason why they worked for him was the temporary release from the babble of people, inextricably webbed in their networks of vanities, jealousies and aspirations. On Scafell Pike, panoramic and building-free, the few voices around him, thin on the wind, hadn't the clamour to be any more than animated distractions, but in the village, the voices were once again everywhere, irritating, clamouring, mundane. This feeling, he knew well enough, keenly felt as it now was, had embedded itself in a young man who eighteen months ago would have regarded a weekend without two long, noisy, drink-filled clubbing sessions as entirely wasted.

In the hotel, they made hot drinks, talked about the walk, stripped and made love again, all without propositioning or misunderstanding; their routines already had a natural language of assumption, amazingly so after only just over a year. Not for the first time, it was Kate who had the post-coital doze, and he watched her, fascinated by the childish innocence of her easy breathing and loosened hair spreading over the pillow, before a compromising revelation of smooth naked back and half-hidden breast became enough to make him begin to rise again. He sensed her ease of spirit, her peace of mind, and as soon as jealousy arrived, he knew where he was being taken. Half-naked on his back, staring uncomprehendingly at a plain ceiling, it felt like the approach of a painful operation. Yet again, his mind filled with the image of Agnes Foreman hanging from the rope she had herself slung around a stout wooden beam in the roof of her garage, her neck cracked at an impossible angle and her legs dangling like some grotesque half-alive soft toy. His eyes moistened and he gazed around the room in mute, fatalistic protestation. Recently, he thought he could detect a strengthening voice within him: 'please, we've done this, it's happened, it's served its purpose, no more, please'. But it began again nevertheless, the replay, as detailed as any painstaking documentary, always beginning at that point, himself standing at the kitchen window, wondering where Agnes was, just before his eyes lifted from the sink and saw,assimilated, those ludicrously disembodied legs.

Then, like a programme repeated, an immediate flashback to the easy intimacy of the pool changing room, showering next to Steve Burroughs, seeing without looking his huge, spreading shoulders, work out six pack and, not least by any means, cool, cynical green eyes and thin, cruel mouth. Mark, for some reason he couldn't work out, was in a confessional mood, having just admitted his sense of hopelessness at five years of post-school drifting. The so-so A levels, largely as a result of parental pressure; the brief, tedious term at a slapdash institution calling itself a university; the bits and pieces of non-jobs at pubs and sports centres. Only just about enough money to keep afloat a succession of shallow a fairs and a half decent motor.

'You could do worse than my business', Steve said. 'Money to be made by smart boys with a bit of gab'. Steve worked in an estate agent's office, aiming himself towards running his own.

'No degrees needed; street savvy from the university of life, my son'

.Mark remembered, precisely, the length and timbre of his scornful laugh.

'Me? All that stuff about mortgages and interest rates? God, I'd be bored rigid, mate'.

Steve was so silent for a minute or two, standing still while a cascade of water dissected him from forehead to belly, that Mark thought he'd been offended; not too difficult with Steve, as he knew.

'It could just work. Yeah'. He turned to Mark. 'A team, maybe, you and me. You don't need to worry about all the technical stuff, mate; all you need to do is dress sharp, smile and concentrate on the women while I deal with the guys. It could work a treat. The boss'll take one look at you and lap it up, especially with the demand on now. I'm a bit heavy for the women sometimes, but you've got an easy way with you. What do you say?'

How pathetic, he remembered, the volubility of his gratitude. So ludicrously flattered at his supposed expertise with women being recognised; so enticed by the idea of easy money. But, for a while, it worked; for the best part of two years, Steve and Mark were the winning office partnership, Steve blokeing it with gym and footie talk while Mark grinned, joked and flirted with the female half, usually the one who made the ultimate decision. Sale after sale, commission after commission, Mark's parents mollified by the impressive car and unable to hide their relief when he managed to find himself a quite decent shag pad in the city and get out of their hair.

Change happened slowly; a gradual change towards a buyer's market made their lives more difficult and compounded Steve's growing resentment at having Mark's sexual triumphs demonstrated to him in work and out, especially compared with Steve's on and off girl friend, Lorraine, of the elaborate hair and empty mind. The courses they'd been on, Steve carefully taking notes and asking questions while Mark joked, smiled and looked out of windows; the equality of commission when Steve felt he'd done most of the work; all thin end wedges for widening cracks. And suddenly, real toughness, and real people starting to be laid off in offices around the town. Steve was always going to be the bigger expert at the diverse schemes intended to keep business buoyant or something like it. Such a creature was 'buy and rent back', the agent having to work on behalf of one or two very murky investment companies.They had already started to fall out seriously over tactics, Steve insisting that it was no good waiting for the business to arrive. Enter Agnes Foreman, first phoned up by Steve on the basis that someone who lived in the same street had gossiped to him about the recent death of Ken Foreman and the rumours of scandalous debts plaguing his widow.

'Appointment arranged', Steve announced, clicking his phone off.

'Old dear in shit, our little boat on its way to the rescue. What a wonderful guy I am'.

'Did she contact us, or have you invited yourself anyway?' Mark said, the days of his rookie submission to superior experience long gone.

'I've invited us, lover boy, so smack that knicker-melting smile of yours on and remember that the dole queue's full of guys with principles. Not to mention trading in that pussy magnet motorof yours. Think about it.Business doesn't arrive while you're sitting
on your arse waiting for it'.

Mark's face darkened; he looked down at what he was reading; nothing registered but blackscribble. But he said nothing. And he went along.

Kate was stirring in her sleep, inarticulate little words and odd chuckles emerging from her; Mark knew that soon she would be waking and wanting to talk about what they would do for the evening, but he knew well enough now that the train he was riding didn't stop and he turned on his side as the images arrived of Agnes, first contact. She had looked apprehensive, uncertain; Steve almost shoved his way in.

'We really are from the agent who phoned you, Mrs. Foreman', Mark said, smiling and showing her a card. She returned the smile; ten years disappeared from her.

'I'm sure you are. I have nothing of value, not in the conventional sense of the term. Do call me Agnes; I never have been able to abide this miss and mistering business. 'What are your names?'

'Mark', Mark said, and smiled again; 'Steve', Steve grunted, after much too long a pause.

'Mark'. She took his hand; her fingers were cold, but the squeeze was genuinely affectionate. 'Very biblical. Very virtuous, though not too much so, I hope, at your age'. A smile again, wicked and warm, as the misty blue eyes opened to him. Mark smiled steadily back, but he and Steve both felt disorientated; there were too few ticks on their grannie index. No cardigans, shawls, heavy skirts; she wore paint-stained jeans and a roll-neck jumper covered by a green smock-like affair. She spoke quickly, without that old lady quavering drawl the comedians do. The house had a distinctive aroma, yes, but not an insidious toilet door left open odour or the damp, biological reek of unwashed clothes. Paint featured, acidic on the nostrils, and a pungency of cooked vegetables; also, an occasionally appearing disinfectant or cleaner.

The house was a large, 1930s semi, solid and still marketable, though it was in disarray; books, magazines and photos of people and places were everywhere, occupying armchairs and a large, battered pseudo-Chesterfield of a sofa, and a solid coating of dust pervaded everything. On the ceilings, cobwebs sprung away from the wall corners and hung from light fittings. From the way she peered at his card and spoke uncertainly towards the direction of whoever had spoken, her faulty eyesight was plain enough; Mark concluded that the place was dirty because she couldn't see the dirt, though Steve's flaring nostrils and curled lips indicated different thoughts.

And she was much, much too revealing about her financial situation. On what Mark supposed had been the dining room table, a scattered chaos of bills, accounts, letters and invoices suggested control had been lost, and she seemed not to be able to accept her own accountability.

'I know it's wrong of me, but I always rather trusted Ken to take care of all that sort of thing, and of course he can't, now. From what I can make out, I do seem to be in a bit of a jam; lots of debts but no assets, you see. I've never really been much use at this sort of thing, but it looks as though he wasn't either, doesn't it?'

Steve winked at Mark, his grin the celebration of the satisfied hunter. Mark ignored him. He cleared chairs for Agnes and himself at the table and, leaning forward to look her right in the eyes, explained the basis of the buy and rent back scheme. Her eyes widened in incredulity at his estimate of what her house was probably worth, but something personal had happened between them and he knew there would be further discussions.

'Come back in a week or so, Mark, when I've looked at these papers of yours. I don't have anyone now to advice me, you see. I've dedicated my life to my painting; even poor Ken didn't get much of a look in some of the time. Never much time for children and all that sort of thing. Next time I'll show you some of my pictures, then we'll have a drink and a chat, just me and you, dear'. Her raised voice for the final words made her meaning clear enough, but she also flickered her eyes sideways towards Steve and back again so as to remove any possible doubt about it.

So the following week, he went back on his own, Steve insisting that he take with him the actual papers she needed to sign. As he explained to her, she watched him, nodding and smiling from time to time, with the patience of an adult listening to a child reciting the big party piece. His reward, it seemed, with all the emphasis ofa particular privilege bestowed, was a visit to her studio. A ladder dropped steeply and suddenly from the attic on the back of the opened door -

Ken's DIY skills, Mark assumed and they climbed up, Mark marvelling at her easy movement, into a room which took his breath away. Spreading over the whole of the house, her attic studio at first gave an impression of complete chaos, but with greater familiarity came an awareness that there was probably more order here than anywhere else in the house.

Gathered together on an old sideboard in one corner were various extracts from newspapers and magazines, single photographs, piles of blank paper and cardboard and some empty frames. On a trestle table against the far wall a collection of paints, brushes and jars of varying ages and conditions were gathered on a surface cloth which could itself pass as a respectable abstract, stained with colours from intense primaries to pale, watery pastels. Two easels were set up more or less centrally, and one corner was arranged as a separate room within a room, with backgrounds of hanging cloth and lights arranged on the perimeter. A single battered armchair was placed a few feet behind the larger easel and he took her invitation to sit down before realising that there was nowhere else for her to sit. She didn't seem to mind; she watched him carefully while leaning back on the photos and paper table.

He leaned forward uncomfortably, unsure of what response to make. She nodded in the direction of a corner, where paintings were stacked against the wall in dozens, ranks of them pushing ten to twelve feet into the space.

'Not so much a misspent youth as a misspent life, Mark, really'. Her eyes moved between him and the paintings. 'They're just the ones I've kept; I've thrown away three times as many. I've only ever sold two, both to relatives, and now my eyes are going. For every successful artist exhibiting in their own gallery, there are dozens like me, dedicated, determined failures'.

He was leaning forward so far he'd practically fallen from the chair, and she flinched back, the blue eyes widening.

'You knew what you wanted to do with your life and you've done it', Mark said. 'I haven't a clue. Good time boy, shallow like a puddle of water'.

She moved across to him and took one of his hands into both of hers. Their eyes were now in a deep mutual exploration, identifying and locating each other's self-exiled fringe beings. 'God forbid', she said softly, 'that the world should ever run out of good time boys. And, believe me, you won't be a boy for ever'.

She led him across to the stacks of paintings and thumbed slowly, a little distastefully, through them while he watched: conventional still lifes, landscapes, pastoral scenes and occasional puzzling abstracts, incongruous and, he suspected, unsuccessful experiments. Now and then, a nude, usually male; she paused before one, a long, dark youth of no more than seventeen or eighteen, smooth skinned and generously endowed, lying simply along the trestle table, grinning with a little embarrassment but not an ounce of shame.

'A good time boy', she said. 'My nephew, in fact. I think he thought I was going to be rich and famous and give him half of the sales. His parents didn't approve, I don't think. I never see any of them now'. She moved with much more of the stiffness of old age into the armchair he'd vacated. He found himself, to his surprise, sitting on the floor next to her.

'Age gives, age takes,' she said. 'Some find out what they're supposed to do even if, as in my case, it doesn't make much sense. I've given up child-rearing, family life, now even marriage, to be a second rate artist who doesn't sell anything; all of this will probably be burned as soon as I'm gone. And yet, this is what and who I am. There is no guarantee, Mark, that even when you find it out, anyone will be able to hear your voice, your human noise. Here I am, here in my bunker, and here I have to stay until the end -- where else could I possibly go?'

She looked at him, sitting dejectedly with his arms round his knees, staring at the floor.

'Oh, let's do this thing of yours, anyway, for heaven's sake! Pay them all off and leave me in peace to go blind as well as mad. Are you really telling me, Mark, that this little scheme will work?'

He looked up and made his eyes meet hers as he spoke. 'Yes, Agnes, I really think it will'.

Still staring blankly at the room ceiling, Mark became aware of Kate stirring beside him and looked round to see her with her head propped on one elbow, watching him, her eyes troubled.

'So where are you now, Mark? Which part of the story have you got to?'

'Oh, God', he said. 'Is the guilt trip so obvious now?'

'Your whole body is stretched out as if it's being racked. Which I suppose it is, like it has been ever since I met you, standing outside the sports centre looking like a tramp. Then we met again in the pool and it was like you'd lost your clothes and somehow regenerated'.

He still had the image of Agnes in his mind and tried to wrestle his concentration away. 'You told me on about the third time we met, when I was trying to work out why someone with no apparent reason to be unhappy was, deeply. I remember the mad temper crossing your face when you described finding that paper on Steve's desk he always was an untidy bastard, you said" saying that the company had taken advantage of the small print and sent Agnes an eviction notice. When you talked about facing Steve with it, your eyes were murderous, terrifying.'

He said: 'what did he say?'

Mark sprang up from the bed and paced to the window.

'Agnes? Who's Agnes? She's a punter, that's all. Christ, Mark, be professional. You saw the state of the place -'

Ten seconds later, he was in the bathroom, the door banged shut behind him. She heard retching and eventually vomiting, violently to begin with and then in spasmodic heaves until replaced by coughing.

Love and anxiety -- not much else could explain her persistence. She'd met him at the pool that day; he was more or less living rough, wandering round with a tent and occasionally sleeping on a mate's floor. She'd got him into a flat share with some guys she knew and even pointed him in the direction of the pool attendant/swimming instructor job, which suited him at the moment. But the question which lingered with her was about whether she'd become so much a counsellor that she was forgetting to make what Agnes would have called her human noise. Listening as a professional skill made sense; listening as the entirety of life didn't. Was she turning into some sad ghoul which needed to trail itself in the wake of flawed beauty as if hoping to pick up some reflected colour and glory? Or perhaps, like Agnes, her route was predetermined, like her own personal and particular straight and narrow, to be stepped off only at the cost of falling flat on her face. Even lovers had to be causes to fight for; even men she fancied the pants off needed a psychosis or two for her to get her teeth into. Love and anxiety, like some eternal empathic seesaw; it was not a brilliant prospect.

Silence in the bathroom and out, a thoughtful, measuring silence, the watered down version of post-battle or disaster silence, when appalled reflections on the immediate past compete with sheer gratitude for silence itself. Eventually, washing noises, and he emerged, pale and red-eyed, but smiling at her in a way subtly different from smiles she had seen from him before, rueful rather than contrived, simple rather than cynical. He sat beside her on the bed.

'I don't think I'll ever entirely be rid of Agnes', he said. 'She's changed me, without a doubt. But, then, I probably needed changing. You've helped me through, yes, but you and me are about more than that. Stay with me when I'm fixed. Please'.

A minute only for eyes; the love advanced, the anxiety retreated.

'I'm going to get showered', he said, 'and then maybe we'll wander out somewhere to eat? Gastro- pub, something like.' He headed towards the bathroom, and turned suddenly back.

'With a bit of music. A bit of atmosphere'.

As the shower water started up, she looked sideways and saw herself in the wardrobe mirror. She was going to use that mirror later on, strategically and disgracefully, making sure the pictures went with the sound, her and her man making human noise. Lots of it.


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