When she was seven her mother caught her sitting cross-legged in front of the washing machine, tapping out a syncopated rhythm as she watched the drum revolve. Her beats completed the sound and filled the gaps.
She discovered the fridge, its motor cutting in and out with unpredictable gaps of silence, and listened for the different notes in its cycle – high as it started, the bass coming through to dominate just before it rested.
Before, the house had been a meaningless jumble of silent irregular shapes that ignored her. Now she heard the soundscape of every object, and learned to read each one like seeing a face. The joints in a chair, peaking suddenly as her father leaned back and vibrating to rest beyond hearing, the wooden frame extending invisibly out in regular beats of undulating lines. She woke herself early, lying in anticipation to hear the central heating switch on, and moved with water through the pipes – soft and round, kind sounds for the morning.
One day she heard the oven light.
At eleven she learned the violin. She watched the strings vibrate, and sometimes lost her timing as she followed the progress of notes from her fingers through the bow and the strings, vibrating the curved wooden box and breaking free at last, fluttering uncertainly in glittering clouds. She loved the notes more than the music – sometimes she stopped playing altogether to follow the path of a bright procession as they moved away from her. Her music teacher was angry, muttering Polish curses at the squandered gifts of the child before him.. He was blind to the music.
She was frustrated with music written down, the notes like small dead insects pinned to a card for examination. People put music in museums, and forgot what it was for. She knew that notes can have no boundaries.
Once, she spent a week with her eyes closed, watching people through their sounds; her father’s shoes beating a different time to his coat, her mother’s bra creaking quietly under her knitted tops. From now on she wore only clothes that harmonised. Sounds became colours.
She started to worry that the air would fill up with sound, that there would be no space left. She worried about a grey muffled silence. Sometimes, by not focussing from the corner of her eye, she could see the snaking lines of sound, pulsing with colours, weaving all around her. Each line grew thicker and thinner to a regular rhythm, as if a heart were beating somewhere. When she closed her eyes to see them better each strand had a different surface, pitted and grooved and scored in patterns she didn’t recognise. She knew that with a microscope the very lines and dots of the patterns would be engraved themselves.
She had her first sex at thirteen, in the physics lab after school. The boy was embarrassed as she demanded to study him, lifting and weighing his balls, noting the unfamiliar curves and proportions, the sound of his erection, rising and falling. She was disappointed that they couldn’t do it twice, so that she could compare the sounds of their bodies sliding. She wanted to measure him. He didn’t ask her again.
She heard geometry at fourteen, calculus at fifteen, and realised that computers were silent.
For a while the sounds faded as she embraced mathematics and knew that there was hidden music in the ciphers. She became religious and worshipped – Pythagoras and Euclid, Liebnitz and Fermat. On the day she graduated with a first from Oxford , just as she reached for the rolled parchment, she started seeing sounds again, words circling her like dragonflies. A tsunami rolled from the back of the hall and crashed over her, leaving her speechless and gasping for breath on the podium so that the doctor was called. Stretched on the stage, wrapped in a graduation gown, she wept for joy as the cataracts dissolved, and each tear sounded with a tiny crystal chime.
She met her husband during a Brahms piano quintet. Listening with her eyes closed in the middle of the third row, in an acoustically perfect hall in Bristol , she saw the torn and ragged skein of a misplayed phrase from the second violin and ran to the stage to weave it back into place. A man from the gallery had been captivated by her face, watching as the music painted Kandinsky’s inside her eyes. He collected her from the bar where they’d sat her with a cup of tea, took her back to the flat in Clifton , and stayed the night.
He lectured in physics at the university, and she discovered a deeper reality of muons and bosons, quantum foam and uncertainty. Each night she demanded a tutorial, fascinated by the symmetries growing from random events. She learned what she’d always suspected, that by listening and watching sounds she became part of their pattern and influenced them just by her presence. No longer an observer, an outsider watching others dance, she was one of the players.
It was an epiphany.
She read Lao Tzu, Kant and Hegel and looked for connections. The sounds she’d seen since childhood were revealed as cords and connections, the sinews that bound together the disparate random particles of the universe. The air was full again, no longer transparent but a sea of particles that were vibrations, waves of matter bound by harmonies that, for the first time, she wanted to hear rather than see. Sometimes she woke in the darkness, suffocating in the throbbing air, and her husband talked softly to calm her, focussing her on the single melody of his voice so that she forgot her fear and slept again.
The therapist lasted four weeks before refusing to continue the sessions. He feared her strength. Each time she came to his minimal room, delighting in its simple relationships, she tried to lay her head against his body at different points, listening to the flow of his blood and lymph.
After she was slightly injured in the street, stepping in front of a car as she watched the songs of engines harmonising, her husband bought her a Walkman to simplify her world as she walked outside.
She stopped listening to music, other than Bach.
One evening, after a late seminar, he found her crouched and crying in the hallway, unable to find her way through the sparkling snaking waves that had trapped her in a pulsing straightjacket, their infinitesimal constrictions slowly closing off all escapes. She stopped talking, for fear that her words would add the final fatal thread and leave no space for any vibration, the end of the universe. She tried to stop thinking, to still the neurons and synapses. She saw herself as a generator that must be shut down before it overloaded. Her body deconstructed around her into limbs, muscles, blood, tendons; then into cells, and the very cells became symbiotic communities of bacteria. The connections were unravelling. All the patterns of her life began to move and dissolve into their component particles, and she could no longer recognise anything around her. The sounds of objects deafened her and she stopped moving.
Her husband visited every day, using his voice as he used to at night. She lay frozen and mute in a quiet room, trying to be blind. After four weeks the medication began to work, and she saw shapes again for the first time in months. She moved through a monochrome mist, a gauze hiding reality. Her guards, her torturers, had simply locked the threads away to punish her. But somewhere they were moving and weaving, colours strobing beyond the visible spectrum, waiting.
They started making love again three weeks after she went home. Like someone blinded she systematically developed other senses to perceive the world again. She started with smell, the scents of her husband as he moved over and around her, inside and out. He mistook the sighs for passion as she caught a new pheromone, reading meals in his sweat and the spray of primeval oceans when he came, smiling as he left the sea inside her.
She no longer worked, spending her days cataloguing smells, cross referencing them to memories of colours and sounds and objects. An academic exercise, like writing down music. She used the computer, creating a database with multiple indexes. She described the sound of a regular dodecahedron, and how it smelt when orange. Each day she extended the scope, designing web pages with hyperlinks to her database. Every night the number of hits to her web site was calculated and added to the catalogue, assigned its own frequency.
One morning she took her pills with their unreadable colours, shapes and sounds, and stuck them onto cards, in arcs intersecting ellipses, asymptotic curves. The cards were filed, silently, and the next morning she could see again, the mist dissolved, the strands of life surrounding her with music. She didn’t tell her husband.
With the return of colour and sound she realised that connectivity was a trap, a delusion for the ignorant and unwary. The very multiplicity of particles glittering in quantum pulses was hiding something beyond her apprehension. Now she had a mission.
Her husband left, at last, when she started humming counterpoints to his grunting crescendos just before ejaculation. She had smelt his mistress weeks ago, and added her to the catalogue.
The day he left she started burning books.
Now she had a purpose she could go out again. Each morning she catalogued and indexed, each afternoon she left the flat, dressed completely in grey to keep the vibrations low. She moved slowly through the streets, watching for the dancing warp and weft in the air around her, stepping through the openings as they appeared in the moving fabric of lights, laughing as she built up a rhythm of bobs and sideways steps in time with the beat. She couldn’t see people.
All the time she listened and looked for something behind. After a while she realised that she wasn’t ready and must return to first principles. She started to sleep through the day and work at night, when the air was thin and sharp, less cluttered and busy. She stood at street corners, her eyes closed, nose in the air, sampling. A car stopped once, the sweating man inside leaning across to ask if she was working. She looked through his window and saw him skinless, a construction of soft machines with pinprick flashes of light from the axons and dendrites. He fled as he saw his reflection in her eyes.
In the attic was her old turntable, and she bought vinyl records to learn how to read, following the grooves as the platter span, thin floating filaments connecting her eyes to the disc. She tried it with CDs, but the binary simplicity bored her, the bits irritating her eyes like dust in the wind.
Her clothes had gone out of tune, and she rearranged the pieces, cutting and sewing, talking to the threads as they created new connections in the fabric. She cut off all her hair and catalogued it, separating the brown from the grey, noting the proportions and where it had grown, looking for a new pattern. In the summer she made a miniature violin from cheap wooden matchboxes, with strands of her brown hair as the strings. The grey hairs, being thinner and more plentiful, were constructed into a bow with wire from an electric cable, and when both the instrument and the bow were finished she wrapped them in black velvet from an old dress that had been retuned and buried them safely in the park one night, in a hole she dug under a blossoming cherry tree. She calculated that the tree was the right shape to keep the package hidden and silent until she found someone to play for her.
She couldn’t recognise loneliness.
Some boys from the nearby estate started following her at night, nascent machismo held in check by an atavistic fear of her difference. She heard their footsteps sometimes, and drummed a counterbeat on her thighs as she moved along. Their taunts were lost, though, thin flutes evaporating in the sharp focus of the dark streets. They knew where she lived, and sprayed fluorescent green graffiti on her door. She was blind to the words but read an invitation in the shapes, and added her own whorls and petals, meaning to please. At two-fifteen one morning, with the moon set early, two of the boys broke in through a back window, and surprised her sitting in front of the computer screen, deconstructing the day’s collection of sounds. She turned and registered the saw-toothed irregularity, the sharp complexity of dissonance moving towards her. She reached out to them, calmly, to straighten and harmonise. One of them shat himself with fear before running back, leaving behind the scents of excrement and blood on the broken window pane to find their own place in her growing understanding.
The years of research were coming to fruition. She had already discarded language as one constraint, knowing that only without it could she be free to perceive existence without a mould that shaped all she apprehended. Now she recognised that her very body was part of the trap, a set of bindings and pathways that channelled all she did. Her own shape, her set of cells and neurons, all were part of a morphic prison so integral that she hadn’t seen the walls before. So clever, she craved knowledge of the designer of such a maze.
She built a chrysalis. On the computer she calculated – the shape, the proportions of the surfaces inside and out. The interior had many facets, like a polished diamond, to set up and maintain the correct vibrations as she melted and changed. She found the equations to connect temperature to shape, surface area to colour. She drew the orbits of electrons for all the materials she used, to ensure that there would be no collisions. She must position the chrysalis with regard to the planetary spin, and sidereal motion, and the speed of the receding galaxies. She must forecast sunspots and supernovae, and include them in the calculus. She must allow for the vibration of planes passing overhead, and buses running late.
The chrysalis took two years, seven months and twenty two days to complete. Checking her calculations took another year. Finally, the finished receptacle hung from a rafter in the attic, the bedroom ceiling below it cut away in a hexagon to allow the correct circulation of air. From the outside it looked like a dark bronze cylinder, gently iridescent, with long curves and scallops, never quite still as it swayed in the planned air currents that disturbed the roof space she had measured and mapped. From some angles it was almost impossible to see, a mirror to its surroundings.
On the day she had calculated from the equations, she shaved all her bodily hair and washed carefully, to minimise the impact of random bacteria. She had not eaten for a week, and drunk only water to purify her body. Now, she prepared the solutions, the yeast pastes, bacterial gels, acid sprays, alkaline rinses, and filled the appropriate cavities in the chrysalis. In turn, as the relevant combination of factors was reached, of time and heat, of humidity and sound, when the sun was the right colour, then each sealed cavity would open to drip or spray its contents over her mutating components.
Finally, on a bright day of rain, when she heard a thrush singing its ordained melody from a lilac tree in the garden, she smiled, climbed in and closed the cover.