A p r i l   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

If it's not spelled out for us ...
Making plans for Nigel
by Edward Morris Jr.

h, dear God, no," said the voice in the airshaft. I turned off the water, all of a sudden very interested.

The shaft went three floors straight down. When I first moved into this walkup, I thought it was a trash compactor, like in the welfare hotel where I used to stay. After about three days, this punk kid next door rather politely knocks up and says don't throw anything else down the shaft or the landlord will bitch.

So I opened the thing and looked down the whole way. Nothing but metal walls, a little square well straight up to the roof. I saw that the old swinging door in my kitchen wall by the sink was just put there to vent the heat from the oven, see? Kind of smart. The apartment house was built in about ought-five, nineteen ought-five, that is, and they did things like that back then.

The voice in the airshaft didn't sound horrified or mad or anything else. No emotion at all. And that was the scariest part. Even before the squealing started.

I thought I knew who it was. The shaft terminated on the first floor, the landlord told me after my apologetic phone call. The woman's name was Kayla or Crystal or something. When I knocked on her door she was looking at me funny until I opened my mouth and told her what was what.

"Oh," she said. "You're that English guy. In 14." She let me in with my trash bag and sheepish look, and boosted my foot when I climbed in and down to the bottom of the shaft. A lot of other tossers over the years had sent their swill down, so I ended up doing the work of three. But it was over in about five minutes.

I had a god-awful headache from the dust when I put one hand against the metal (noting for the second time how it had rippled and humped up like wood, from the years of exposure from above) and climbed back up with my peddler's sack of 1985 Marlboro packs and rank V8 bottles and an original Bart Simpson doll whose head had melted somehow, atop my empty soda cans and junk mail.

The woman's white-blond ringlets shook when she laughed, but there was no malice. "See you later," she said, holding open the door.

Whatever her name was, I heard her later, all right. I don't go much; when I'm not working at the docks, I'm usually either sleeping or watching telly. But someone on either the first or second floor of the walkup seemed to be in the habit of keeping the kitchen vent door open during the loudest sex I have ever heard in my entire life, often two or three goes a night. So I thought I recognized the voice, though it was much less animated than I was used to hearing.

But this wasn't her. This was a male voice, low and stoned and strangely indifferent. It said something else, but I could barely hear it over the squealing, squealing, squealing of the rats.

Don't ask me how I know that sound for what it is. It's hard to talk about that day fishing the Clyde with Da' on holiday, and the nest I punctured through, digging in the brush for worms. I'd really rather not mention the mama rat rushing back for her pink, squirming babies and chewing on my boot, or how I cried till Da' came and squashed her with one hob-nail heel. I was five. But let's not dwell, except to say I knew that sound was not a bird or a suckling pig or a mandrake root. That's not something you forget.

Then it was just gone. My head rang with the wind in the airshaft, with the deep, thick silence of the campus on spring break, this cheaper-than-most student housing stilled on a Friday night like I have never heard in a year.

There was only the sound of wind, like a little kid blowing on a jug, whistling over that strange well in the throat of my building, over the iridescent wood grain of the metal, over the dust and the splintery timbers below whose bottommost side I thought I'd seen emerging nailed shut from the basement ceiling the first time I did laundry.

But there was a hollower bass note from the airshaft in the wind's singing, as the rain began to spit off the sides of the thing. I was not now so sure about the terminus.

Right. I'd been meaning to sod off work anyway. I'd never get to sleep now.

About 22 hours and a few pints later, I stood in the kitchen, moodily looking at the undone load of dishes. There was no Kim to lay me out for it, either. Small comfort, that ... but I'd made a little voyage down to the Radio Shack on Fifth Avenue.

The beaming Paki clerk had told me that this type of thing was all the rage for Christmas with the Silicon Valley crowd, the year just past.

"D&D wanker kids, more like." I sneered, but I was turning the directional microphone over and over in my hands.

"Oh, no, sir. They all get Web cams for their front doors, you see, and these to go along with them. This model is digital. It takes a lithium battery, and it's got quite a range–"

"I can see that." I'd worked for a stereo store off and on in Loughton, and I know about pickup patterns and the like.

"One thing, boss–" He was ready.

"What sort of headphone jack on this model?"

There were two. And I let him talk me into a single-bead earphone, also digital, though that was a bit of a bite out of my arse until payday. So there it was.

Half 12, by the microwave clock. Right about the time the previous evening when I'd turned off the tap and begun to listen. I set my beer on the counter and put in the earphone.

I had to grin. Danny and Derek down in No. 4 were coughing over a water pipe. Kyla/Crystal's place was inaudible. The punk rocker next door was blaring T-Rex's "Bang a Gong," though he probably had not even been an itch in Da's trousers when Marc Bolan shuffled off this mortal coil. Out on the street, the No. 9 bus trundled up the lane.

It was like when I was a lad and submerged my head in the bathtub, able to hear everything going on in the house through the weird acoustic effect. Ma used to bellow in: "Nigel, you know that's bad for your ears!" Peter Murphy, who also predated the erstwhile DJ next door, called those sorts of experiences a miniature secret camera.

I felt like a lo-res god, in a weird way. The metal airshaft would have made a great speaker, and the echoes were priceless. For some reason, that made me think of my old boss at Killannan Lane Electronics, talking about how you never hear your voice the same way others do, because ...

"The human skull is, itself, a resonator," I muttered, and my voice was the fuzzy ringing boom of an elder god. "Some of us are just tuned into the wrong frequency."

It would be great crack, I thought, to sit up here after work with the little microphone, just listening. Listening down the shaft, for whatever weird radio signal it picked up in the small hours when the stars were right or, for all I knew, when the bloody thing magnetized itself or whatever in the world.

"Then again, you could be completely off your tit," I mumbled, softer this time.

I heard my door click open and shut but I barely registered it. The crazy bird down in No. 5 was watching "The Sopranos" and I was trying to figure out which season it was by the voices while I waited 'round. So there was none more surprised than me when the puffy-soled Tretorns whispered across the linoleum of my kitchen and Kayla/Crystal said: "Boo!" in my ear.

"Fuck!" I clapped a hand to the side of my head while jumping half a foot. She giggled.

"Sorry, love. What was your name?"


"Right." I glanced sheepishly at the pistol grip of the little gray mike in my hand. "This really isn't what it appears."

"They let me off work early," she said mysteriously. "Usually I'm there till way after last call, but I think I'm coming down with something."

"I'll fit you with a respirator shortly," I replied, sipping my beer. "Two unexcused days off and I get sent out the door."

I was trying too hard to be funny, because she looked as nervous as I felt just then. We don't get much female company down the docks, and I'd not been in the States long enough to have made many friends. I felt like a hermit, but there you are.

"Where do you work?" she asked. I named the shipping company. You'd know it. "You?"

"The Palace," she said finally.

"Well done," I shrugged. "You get good tips, then?"

Kyla shrugged. Her eyes changed the subject. I'd wager she was putting herself through school that way, and probably not by choice. Times were tough in this part of the world after those mad dogs crashed the jetliners in New York.

The ice seemed to have been broken, but I thought about the sounds in the shaft last night and found myself still on shaky mental ground. Sod it, I'd get the programme later.

Kyla glanced at the airshaft. "It's been getting louder, lately. Weirder, too. You probably won't need your little toy." I pretended to look wounded, but deep down I was sort of relieved that she heard it, too. That was the real icebreaker, then.

I had to laugh. The punk rocker next door had put on an old XTC album by that point. The song was one I had especially liked in the dim dead '80s because it had my name. "Making Plans For Nigel" booped and beeped through the gap in the conversation. It always made me smile.

"Right when the weather gets nice ..." She was looking me right in the eyes. "... and the spring rains start, it's like it picks up TV or something. You always hear about people picking up radio waves on their fillings, or steel plates in their heads–"

"Do me a favor," I chuckled. She looked confused.

"What do you need?"

"Never mind." I could not keep the grin back. "I just mean ... pull the other one."

That she got. "No, seriously. I ... Sssh!"

She held up one hand. Overhead, the clouds ground together like God's teeth. The metal of the shaft glowed a little, blurry and white.

And I thought out of nowhere: This is all? We're raised on horror films and science fiction, then when something unexplainable happens to us, if it's not spelled out for us we can't process it.

I could smell the potatoes in the cupboard, dry matter-of-fact dish soap and pine cleaner. Everything stood out bright and deep and clear. There was the sense of a quiet breath, a hush and exhale into a moment of the unexplainable that for some reason stands apart and will never come back twice the same.

The squealing rose to nightmare pitch ... and then was cut off on the sounds of heavy metal doors or gates slamming shut in a chain reaction.

"I can't allow this." The male voice still sounded tired and stoned, wearily frustrated.

A single squeal rose up, and was stomped into silence. "I leave you alone for five minutes and you start trying to tear down every barrier in Creation. While I'm alive, you're bound to me, and that doesn't mean only when I'm around."

Then the voice simply cut out, with no fuss or fanfare. The clouds broke, and the rain began to rattle the throat of the shaft.

It took what seemed like an hour to turn my head. Kyla took a pull off my beer, handed it back to me and said: "Shall we tie one on?"

It took me no time to realize that, no matter what, I would make it to work the next day, relieved at my triumphant return to the humdrum.

After that night, however, Kyla got me a job as a bar-back at the Palace. Grunt work, but lots better than the docks. Better tips, too. We've gotten to be fast friends.

The idea of dating a stripper is still too weird to me. I could never stand what I know my male ego would see as the "competition." But she and I have closed down a few bars, had a lot of laughs, even made it down to the beach on the odd weekend off.

It's nice to be making plans again, making friends, building a foundation after my two-dimensional gray dole-queue life back in merrie old England. I might just decide to stick around and renew my visa.

And I might just keep that airshaft closed.


E-mail Edward at locutuspdx@yahoo.com, and don't miss his previous work.

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