Emma can still hear the notifications from the seclusion of her room. Beep-beep and diddly-oop echoing up through the floor. She left them down there in the kitchen together half an hour ago, as soon as she’d finished her dinner and even though they’d not touched theirs. They’ve been getting harder and harder to be around for at least four years. Since she was ten.
It’s her three-year-old brother she feels most sorry for. He’s still down there.
They’ll be slouched at opposite ends of the worn leather sofa by now, tagging each other on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram with whatever comes up on their own news feeds. Chuckling and nodding in mild agreement with everything – everything – even if they’re contradicting themselves. She doesn’t follow them on her socials anymore.
And he’ll be there with his iPad, sat between them, blissfully copycatting. Swipe, prod, swipe, prod-prod. Learning by doing. She is deeply sad that he won’t grow up knowing their parents like she does.
It’s not the same as it was. The music has gone.
But she tells herself that at least he never knew how it used to be, what it felt like to watch it going and be able to do nothing about it, or what it’s like now in comparison. She reassures herself that the vacuum gathering around the three of them is all he has ever known, so it must be the definition of happiness for him.
Sitting alone on her single bed, rain falling on the little window above her head, is not her favourite way to spend a Friday evening. She sighs and closes her eyes, her head nodding forward and her arms going limp briefly.
After only a few seconds, she opens her eyes again and turns round to lean slowly over the left edge of her bed until her whole body is over the floor. She balances herself with the fingers of her left-hand splayed white on the dark blue fibres of her carpet, and only her knees holding her up on the mattress. Then she stretches out and runs her right-hand index finger over the top of her record collection lined on the floor against the opposite wall, under a pine dresser full of ornaments and notebooks. She never used that table or its mirror for beauty. She prefers the natural look.
She pulls out the most worn record sleeve. Her absolute favourite song. Her mum’s favourite Leonard Cohen single. Then she pushes herself, with three shuffling bounces, back up onto her bed, sits upright and slides the record out onto the tip of her left index finger.
The record rocks a little then gently rests its thinnest edge on the soft, round ball of her thumb. She raises it level with her eyes and looks over it for fluff or hairs, switches her grip to hold the record gently by the sides with the finger-tips of both her hands, then turns to her left again towards her record player.
It is one of those old-fashioned record players. Retro. Vintage. Her dad’s from the early seventies. One of those ones with a built in speaker at the front, a melamine lid strong enough for use as a table top when the player is closed, and four slender, wooden screw-off legs, a plastic handle on the side and lockable metal clasps all round so it can be carried off like a suitcase.
Looking down through the play hole of the record with her right eye shut, she lines it up with the centre spindle of her record player, pauses, holds her breath unintentionally, and slowly lowers the record onto the turntable as she breathes out softly.
The record in place, she reaches for her noise-cancelling headphones, which she keeps hooked over the top of her dark-grey, broadcloth headboard, just under the windowsill. There’s a relieving crack above her right hip as she twists all the way round to her left and stretches up with her right hand to grab them.
On the other side of the headboard, where it is shoved firmly into the corner of her room furthest from the door, it is covered with assorted memories pinned or stuck or taped to it. There are pictures, tickets, silly drawings and notes from her friends, and all sorts of other little bits too; all of which prompt happy memories. She has been collecting these here since she was seven.
She slips her headphones on with the same gentle care you might take when you cup a much longed-for hot drink in the palms of your hands before drinking it. The action has the same effect on her too. Calming.
She lifts and drops the needle smoothly onto the record. The player pops quietly into motion. She slouches back onto her three pillows and closes her eyes, feeling every note fill her.
It’s not the same as drifting to sleep when you were six while your mum and dad were jamming together downstairs. Laughing and joking. Riffing off each other. Loving each other’s talents. In awe of each other. Passionate. All that excited, creative energy used to flow up straight through the floor, through her bed and deep into her heart through her back.
And it’s not the same as pretending to be asleep in the living room when you were eight and it was past your bedtime, just so you could listen to your mum and dad write a new song. Hearing how their spark and constraint worked together. How they loved each other for their light and dark.
Her earliest memory is spinning round and round in the living room while her parents played a song for her. She was holding two open marker pens in each fist, wearing a hat made from blue card and had a long glorious tail of red and silver tissue paper tucked into the top of her leggings. At the time she remembers believing she looked like a superb peacock. They’ve told her this was when she was about four. They can’t remember which song it was.
Listening to her favourite song on her own in her room is certainly not the same as any of that. What could be. But it’s all she has got, because now their instruments gather dust in two opposite corners of the living room.
Emma’s dad used to play drums – all sorts of cultural drums like Djembes and Bodhrans, as well as traditional kit and orchestral percussion too – but nowadays all he does is rap his knuckle once, or occasionally roll a quick triplet with his fingertips on the uncovered top of his Cajon as he walks by. The wooden top of that drum is now mainly used as a side by the kitchen door. A holding area for sweetened tea and cheap biscuits. The rest of his drums are tightly knotted inside two tie-dyed sheets in the corner under the stairs, behind the airer, ironing board and vacuum cleaner.
Her mum mostly played harp, but often the violin or piano too, and could turn her hand to most other instruments whenever she tried a new one. She hasn’t touched any in more than three years either. The last time she did, the string broke on her violin as soon as she picked it up and that thwarted moment seemed to be the end of it for her. Later that same evening she loosened the strings on her harp, her classical guitar and her violin, dried and dusted them down along with her dizi flute, then shut or zipped them all into their smart black cases and neatly filled the corner between the bookshelf and the window with their shadows.
It would have been quite a ceremonial act if it wasn’t so brusque and huffy.
After this, he stood beside her – so close they were almost one entity – while she shut the piano lid with a hard crack. Then he locked it and threw the tiny iron key into an ornamental, bone-china, willow-patterned bowl on their mantlepiece.
That bowl was the permanent home for many other forgotten keys, along with some picture hooks, cotton, paper clips, a little ball of Blu Tack and two 13amp plug fuses. All hidden under a pile of black and gold marbles. Like a universe that has hardened and collapsed in on its secrets.
Emma doesn’t take off her headphones when the song finishes. She is still trying to block out the constant sound of notifications from downstairs. Instead, she sits up, unplugs them from her record player, rolls over onto her right side, pulls her iPad toward her from where she last shoved it half under her pillow, and plugs her headphones into the iPad.
She googles “interesting music” but only gets results for mainstream popular music. Because that is what the majority have taught the algorithms to think is interesting.
Then she googles “weird music” and gets a lot of Frank Zappa and the like. Ok, so the bots are pretty spot on there!
She adds “al things” to the end of that search, which returns a few more of the kinds of results she was hoping for. People making amazing music from bits and bobs and pots and pans, or cutting speech and animal sounds into some quite brilliant rhythmically melodic tracks.
She is looking for something for breakfast tomorrow. Something inspirational, she hopes. Something her dad will like. If devices are now the main currency of communication between them, she’ll give it a go.
After following the click-trail from one video to the next for a while, saving a few to her favourites but not feeling the need to share anything to her social media, she comes across one video about a bird. The tag line is “Lyrebirds Sing Their Own Destruction” and the short article claims that Lyrebirds, which can mimic the sound of any birdsong, have started to copy the sounds of chainsaws and diggers because they hear them cutting down the rainforests. The article says this behaviour is destroying the beauty of their song, and then extrapolates this opinion rather quickly and clumsily into an allegory for the whole of human-led global environmental devastation.
As she taps on the YouTube link to watch the video, she is sure she will be able to see the dubbing – expecting shockingly imperfect image/sound matching.
But the video is quite convincing.
Even the birds’ throat movements seem to be in time with the rhythmic elements of the unnatural soundtrack. She scrolls through the comments while the video plays. Amongst the almost entirely purely emotional responses – outrage and doubt in equal measure, alongside the usual trolling and self-promotion – one comment catches her eye.
This is misleading. Read my blog. I went to find out.
It is accompanied by a link through to a WordPress site.
Because of the promise of experiential research and because of the balance contained in that one word (misleading; rather than that too easily barked #fakenews with which we have come to demonise and confuse opinion, manipulation and outright lies) Emma follows the link to the blog.
Hey, thanks for dropping by to read me! Please share this on if it connects with you. A few months ago, I saw an amazing but also concerning video about Lyrebirds on social media. [EDIT: I just saw it again years later! The same things go round and round don’t they. I posted a link to this article in the comments. Perfect.] These magical birds, which are native to Australia and were introduced to Tasmania in the 19th Century, look similar to UK pheasants; same size, same shape, same aimless walk; but with long, flowing ornamental tail feathers shaped a little like that Ancient Greek harp the Lyre. Hence the name. The video showed how they can mimic the song of any other birds around them, and other sounds too. It was quite spellbinding! But it also gave me the impression that the Lyrebirds repertoire has been ruined by humanity invading their environment. It didn’t really fall far short of explicitly saying – and was clearly designed to be suggesting – that these amazing birds have started to mimic human sounds like chainsaws and diggers rather than beautiful natural sounds. And, so the video said, this is because the grinding and unnatural human sounds are now all around the birds, encroaching upon and destroying their habitat. How deeply sad if true. But, also…we all know that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet can you! So, I thought I would arrange a trip out to the Lyrebird’s natural habitat, accompanied by a guide or expert of course, to see for myself. First off, I contacted Birdlife in Australia, who work to conserve native birds, and then the Australian Bird Study Association. After many confusing telephone calls, and a little bit of bureaucracy, I ended up exchanging a few emails and talking on the phone with an expert in a small research facility inside the rainforest of Victoria. A lovely and very softly spoken Dr. Saira Walker. She arranged for me to stay at her facility for two nights and sorted a lift all the way from Melbourne for me. A four-wheel drive out on a supplies trip would pick me up from the bus station. All I had to do was arrange my flights from the UK into Melbourne and get to the bus station. In the end, due to the timings of my travel options, I also needed to book myself into a hotel in Melbourne for one night either side of my trip into the rainforest. What with the flight stopovers either way, it was looking to be a brilliantly varied trip. I woke in the early hours of the Wednesday that was the first day of my trip, having spent the entire day before packing thoroughly. A pre-booked taxi took me to Heathrow where I waited for three hours for the plane to be ready for boarding. A pretty dull start to this adventure, made duller by the food choice at the airport! I had an eight hour stop-over in Singapore where I’d made sure I had plans to experience aspects of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian culture. Read my blog post on Singapore here. And then I went on to Melbourne with no trouble, sleeping while the plane crossed the ocean. I wrote about my two days in Melbourne on another post here too. But it was when I was picked up at the bus station that the trip really became an adventure.
The electric light has drained Emma. Time has slipped by quickly. Her eyes close. Her iPad falls from her hand onto her bed. The last thing she is aware of is how warm her ears are.
Their motions are there before she is – light flashes and fades, elbows swing, skirt hems spin, knees flex and feet tap – the sense of the images beats her to it too – the curves and shine – fingers blurring and multiplying – she arrives with the heaviest sounds – she arrives when everything flashes into focus – her parents – their huge smiles and stupid dances – palms crack – bow clatters – hammers grinding teeth and gears.
Metal crashes while they spin.
Metal crashes while they spin.
Metal crashes while they spin.
Her mouth is dry.
With her eyes still closed she sucks the back of her tongue in an attempt to generate some saliva. Nothing happens.
She reaches out but finds from the feel and the weight that her glass is empty.
With her eyes still closed she fumbles and stubs her way to the bathroom to suck a long, slow drink from the tap instead. She stumbles straight back to her room with one eye part-open this time, having not quite turned off the tap behind her.
It needs a washer replaced. He says he’ll get round to it soon.
She falls back into bed and drifts in and out of sleep for a few minutes. All the while wishing she’d not left the tap to tick and pop. Like the worst kind of electro-jazz, the rhythm of the tap mixes in and out of time with the constant notifications on her parents’ phones echoing up again from the kitchen below. Out of synch.
She squeezes her eyes tight, shakes her head, screams No, fuck this, no way as loud as she can inside her mind. Then she slowly gets out of bed, swings on her dressing gown over her soft cotton pyjamas and goes downstairs.
Her dad has made Full English for everyone, as he always does on a Saturday morning. To start the weekend good, as he used to say but doesn’t anymore.
The oblong, white laminate table in the middle of the kitchen has brown and red sauce in the middle, along with salt and pepper, and butter, jam, honey and marmalade. Her dad, in grey tracksuit bottoms and a white t-shirt, covered by a blue-striped apron, is at the stove to her right, filling the plates with food. Her mum, in black leggings and a grey jumper is further to her left, across the table, standing by the sink and the back door.
Emma sits quietly on her usual chair, tucked in between the mop-propped-open door and the humming fridge. Somewhere miles away, Mongolia maybe or New Zealand, a large empty box is placed on a feather duvet.
Her brother is on his booster seat opposite her, smiling nicely at her. Behind him the large window lets the light flow in and lets Emma’s mind take a walk to the end of the garden to sit on its own in the little bit of woodland down there.
Quite frustratingly, each time one of their parents’ phones goes off her brother beep-beeps or diddly-oops to himself and laughs. This new addition to, repetition of, the inane cacophony all around threads thinly through her and tugs her back from her spot in the shade.
“Alright love,” her dad says as he drops her laden plate in front of her, sits down to her right and immediately picks up his phone. Not waiting for her quiet response.
“Sandra,” he’s not looked up at his wife across the table from him, he’s just talking loudly to her while he still looks at his phone’s screen, “you seen these fucking idiots?”
“What’s that?” Sandra looks up.
“These.” He stands, reaches, and leans a little over the table to show her his phone’s screen.
Sandra looks closely at it. She scowls.
“Can’t see it properly, share it with me.”
Sitting back in his chair, he presses his phone a few times.
Hers beeps and she taps the screen.
“Oh yeah,” she says squinting at her phone. Scrolling down slowly. “They’re all arseholes. Look at this Emma.” She shoves her phone into Emma’s face.
“Mum!” Even her exclamation against the sudden invasion of her space is quiet. Almost unspoken. Cutting off its own echo with a softly gulped-back breath.
Emma takes a quick look and notices that the article is about travellers who have moved into a local car park.
She thinks for a moment.
“I suppose, as long as they’re good neighbours then it’s ok isn’t it.”
“Don’t be daft! They’re all criminals.” Her mum’s voice sounds authoritative, like she is certain she is speaking the truth.
Emma cannot understand how her mum can make such sweeping statements about people of whom she knows nothing. Emma, at her youthful age, knows that there is good and bad in any lifestyle. That you can’t say or assume the nature or intent of any group of people or any singular person. That doing so is judgemental. That doing so is one ist or another, whether or not it is notorious enough to be well known. How come her mum doesn’t know this. Or has she forgotten it too. Like she’s forgotten the music.
“They’re not all bad,” Emma says quietly. “They’re just different from us, like everyone is.” Then she smiles thinly, picks up her phone and looks at her dad. “Look at this, Dad.” Hope flutters lightly in her heart. Her smile shivers. She opens one of the videos she found last night. “It’s amazing isn’t it.” A homeless woman on the side of the road playing traditional African drum rhythms with just her fingertips on jam jar lids. Pretty powerful on several levels really.
Her dad doesn’t look up from his phone.
“That’s not important, Emma,” her mum says sternly, reaching out to grab Emma’s wrist and push it down onto the table. “This is!” She swipes assertively on her phone for three tense seconds while still holding Emma’s arm down, then she shoves her phone into Emma’s face again.
Emma doesn’t react. She even keeps her arm still inside her mum’s fist.
Her mum turns from her after getting no response, letting go of Emma’s arm.
“Gaz, look at this one.”
“Yeah, right on,” he says after less than a second’s glance. “Tag me in it, I’ll share it on.”
Their phones beep and diddly continuously throughout breakfast; their basic needs for human connection endlessly and incompletely attended to with cursory and often unmet glances at each other, and the occasional minor snigger that sounds more like a sniff or grunt than enjoyment.
Across from Emma, her brother messily mashes up his food and eats it slowly, alone. All the while, his copycatting of the phones is getting better and better. It gets so good in fact that, during a lull in notifications – everyone taking a mouthful of breakfast at the same time all around England, Emma thought to herself – it becomes obvious that her little brother has managed to mimic her parents’ phone notifications well enough to trigger their autonomic reactions.
Sandra Picks up her phone.
Gaz picks up his.
They each stare at blank screens with no notifications on, and then both put their phones down again with slight frowns.
Emma’s brother clearly finds this very satisfyingly funny.
Emma, on the other hand, finds it funny like gone off milk smells a bit.
Unable to feel happy amidst the gadgets’ anesthetisation of her family, she pushes her breakfast away having only eaten half a sausage, one small mouthful of beans, half a bit of bacon without the rind, and only the white of a fried egg. She gets up slowly, shudders invisibly as the squeak of her chair on the wooden floor creeps up her spine into the back of her mouth, and then she returns slowly to her bedroom.
Her parents don’t stop what they are doing when she leaves the table.
The record is still on the player and the blog she had been reading the previous night is still open on her iPad’s browser. She resettles on her bed, plugs her headphones into her record player and sets it going, picks up her iPad to read again, and sighs what would be a happy sigh of calm relaxation and safety if it wasn’t so full of disappointment and loneliness.
The four-wheel drive that arrived to pick me up at the bus station in Melbourne was covered in mud and dust, and it was clearly very worn out. The driver however was very smiley and set me at ease quickly. His name was Karl. He chatted to me about his childhood the whole drive from Melbourne to Victoria and on into the rainforest. Thirty or forty miles in total, I think. His driving style in the towns was exhilarating to say the least, and the level of excitement and fear I felt increased significantly when we got onto some tracks in the forest that he was clearly very familiar with! It was late afternoon when we arrived at the facility. Karl told me everyone was out on a count; a trip into the forest to see how many birds they can find in a given area. They do this regularly to keep a track on population, not wanting to tag the birds in any way. We walked very quickly together, weaving in and out of a series of dark blue port-a-cabins that were unevenly distributed between a few small clearings, along narrow paths and through wide-open out-door seating areas all floored with compacted earth under layers of well-trodden leaves and reeds. The whole facility was sheltered under off-white canvasses tightly stretched between the trees six or seven metres above our heads. He took me straight to a long rectangular cabin in a clearing on its own. He had to kick the bottom of the door to open it, then walked me to a bed at the far corner at the end of a row of six other beds, opposite a row of another seven against the other long wall of the cabin. Each bed had a small table at the head, a trunk at the foot, and a drawer underneath. Like a school orienteering trip or a military billet. I put my bag on the bed, unpacked my toiletries onto the shelf between the legs of the bedside table and sat down to start to type up some notes, while Karl went to take a shower. I was glad to hear there were showers, my muscles needed some heat. But when I took one later it was not what I expected at all. The group returned within about an hour and Dr Walker came over to greet me. She was as smiley and light as her soft voice on the phone had suggested. Dr. Walker, or Saira as she insisted I called her, took me out to a caged-off area where I saw my first ever Superb Lyrebird, with it’s lovely blue-tinged head and little round dark-brown body. Its unbelievable tail curved gracefully out of some really cute downy tufty feathers. It was almost twice as long as the bird itself. It had subtle grey-blue stripes hidden amongst the rich browns and lacy plumage, which Saira said were called ‘filamentaries’. Saira also taught me that there is another species, which is not as glamorous because it does not have the colour or plumage. This one is called Albert’s Lyrebird and is named after Prince Albert. Both species are expert mimics, ground dwelling, and mostly flightless. Though they do like to flutter up to the tops of trees and can achieve long graceful glides, but only if they launch themselves from high in a tree or if they run down hill first! The one I was looking at was not a captive bird, it was wounded and being nursed back to health. It had been found with a large wooden splinter through one of its short, reddish wings. Saira told me that it was due for release on the last day of my trip but that she couldn’t guarantee I’d see it head back into the wild, because the birds they look after from time to time never seem to want to leave. As if they’re quite happy in the large aviary, though completely oblivious to the fact they are trapped of course. At one point while we were talking, this bird put its head deep inside a large, tipped over, steel bucket and sung into it; its beautiful song echoing and amplified. It was a really funny sight! And the bird was clearly enjoying itself! After watching this for a little bit, we walked together to one of the out-door areas Karl had whisked me through earlier, and we sat down for dinner with Saira’s co-research-lead Dr. Jayne Wilson. Their two male and three female PHD student research assistants joined us as well It was a delicious meal of Kale and Black Bean Lasagne. And they were an inspirational lot to dine with. There’s nothing better than listening to experts who are passionate about what they do. After dinner we went to sleep early in preparation for a morning trip to count the Lyrebirds in another part of the forest. A trip I would be joining!
When the record plays out, Emma is too comfortable to move and restart it. The weight of holding her iPad to read has weakened her wrist and the light from its screen has done for her eyelids again.
Something bright from an outside that is brighter than the windows of the café cuts in through a quickly widening crack around the edge of the roof – blinding – the roof is lifted fully off the walls – it is tethered to a beautiful Lyrebird – they used to come to this café – she remembers it well – they played their songs in the corner – the cheers while she drank milkshakes – the walls teeter outwards – separating – dividing – falling softly like petals and feathers – jolt from their footings and swing out and up – dragged away with the roof by four more Lyrebirds – the clean sky surrounds what the café no longer does – only the chair she is sat on remains – sound waves from the birds’ songs buzz and throb against her skin – her shoulders jump and roll, frustrated that her arms are fixed to her hips.
That tight, dry ball of nothingness fills her empty stomach with need.
“Emma, are you coming down for dinner?” Her dad’s distant voice is quickly chased up the stairs by the crash of the slammed living room door.
Everything is loud and bright except for the things that are crumpled and creased around and inside her.
She has slept straight through lunch.
Her walk downstairs is slow and unenthusiastic. Her steps through the square, sparsely furnished, white and grey living room are barely intentional. When she gets into the kitchen her brother and dad are sat facing each other across the corner of the table. One beep-beeps, the other laughs and then beep-beeps too. The first laughs and diddly-oops. Which is returned. They’re just staring at each other, beeping and diddly-ing, smiling stupidly and dribbling a bit sometimes. Paying no attention to anything else.
She slips into a gap in the air, sits softly again upon her chair, her arms hang limp beside her, she looks at her plate of food.
Her dad turns to her.
“Listen,” he says quick and chirpy, jerking his head towards her brother and turning straight back to him to carry on the annoying game.
This is clearly not the time for her to try to get any of them back into music.
She starts to quietly eat her meal.
Her mum joins the table a moment later, having wiped down the kitchen surface and put a dish on to soak in the sink.
“You look sleepy, darling.” Her mum really sounds like she cares.
But straight after saying that, a split second after a smile forms on Emma’s lips, her mum turns to her dad and brother and beep-beeps then laughs herself.
Emma’s smile folds back in on itself. She picks up her plate and leaves the room.
When she gets upstairs, she sits cross-legged on her bed, positions her dinner directly in front of her, places her iPad on a stand the other side of that, leans over her plate to swipe and zoom to set the next part of the blog on the screen so she can read it while she eats, then puts on her headphones and sets her favourite record playing again.
Even though the bed was not comfy, I had slept deeply and as a result woke groggily. We had porridge for breakfast and headed out at once. It was like a proper adventure. It started in the dark and the light grew around us. Men with torches and machetes guided us, cutting back the sides of a well walked but thin path through the undergrowth. After an hour of walking we arrived at a clearing where there were three small wooden bird hides. We sat quietly on the thin wooden benches inside these to watch the birds. Some of the group took detailed photos of the birds and some took detailed notes about the birds’ behaviours. I was just sat silently enjoying my chance to watch and listen to the birds for the first time in the wild. It was true. It was unbelievable. It was astounding! They mimicked all the bird calls I could hear around me. I sat quietly and listened to the natural beauty and crazy variety of sounds they could produce. I heard no machine or otherwise unnatural sounds though, as the video suggested I might (or would). While we quietly ate lunch still inside the hides, I whispered to Saira that I’d not heard the birds make any mechanical sounds at all. She quickly quipped back with a bright smile that they don’t. And she told me that she would explain more later. After lunch we headed back to the facility, tidied and washed ourselves and the equipment, and then sat down together again for dinner. We had a delicious vegetable curry this time. Saira talked to me about how the birds don’t mimic the sounds of destruction. In fact, the whole table joined in to emphatically support her. They were all aware of the video and didn’t appreciate it. She wanted me to make sure I told you all that these birds are much more discerning than that. They carefully choose which sounds to mimic based on mating advantage and how beautiful the sounds are. Only Lyrebirds in captivity or in permanent proximity to humans mimic the bad/unnatural noises. And – Saira asserted this last point extremely clearly, in her soft yet inescapable way – the birds stop making the unnatural noises very soon after they are back in their natural environment. After dinner had slipped into chatting over empty plates, we returned to the sleeping cabin, where I had been looking forward to having a shower since I arrived. It turned out that the shower was outdoors, with the shower head hung from a low tree bough, fed by a large black bag full of water strung high in the tree above the canvass canopy to gather warmth from the sun. It also turned out that early afternoon, not early evening, would have been a time when I could have had hot-ish water. My shower wasn’t cold, but it was a temperature I would not call warm either. And being outside, enclosed in just the flimsy circle of a thankfully much larger than usual fabric shower curtain, was weird but very physically and mentally revitalising. After all the exercise and all the conversation, my mind and body were equally worn out, so I slept well on my last night.
Metal clatters onto china.
An old man carries a lantern in the daylight – he sheds a tear for everything he sees – young eyes crack open, letting light into light; then close, returning to darkness – he searches all night for Cordelia and Galileo – the rhythm of her blood beats in her ears, calling out to them – they have been lost in a labyrinth without corners for centuries.
An ache at the base of her spine.
Discomfort in her shoulder.
Emma’s fumbling fingers find her empty plate and cutlery from last night. Her mind latches on to the Sunday. She can hear them all downstairs.
When she steps into the kitchen wearing the same dressing gown and pyjama combo she has had on all weekend, their faces are full of polished happiness, glistening smiles and the widest of eyes. The base of her spine and her shoulders still ache. Residual. Built-up energy. Tension. Something else.
Her family are still smiling beeping didly-ing smiling ooping beeping smiling smiling, mouths wide, teeth bared. Beep. Beep. Beep. Diddly. Diddly. Diddly. Oop. Oop. Oop.
She can’t stand it. Such a ridiculous reason to ignore her.
“Are you gonna say hello?” The assertiveness that shoots up from her heart and wraps itself around her words takes her by surprise, filling her with power. “Are you going to speak to me?”
They turn to look at her, then just stare and laugh.
Stare and laugh and diddly-diddly-diddly-oop-oop-oop-beep-beep-beep, and smile back.
A blinding uneasiness creeps darkly over her, shifting the tension in her shoulders and the base of her spine into sharp pains. Urges to escape.
She grabs her breakfast from her usual place on the table and returns upstairs with it.
What the fuck is going on? She screams deep inside her mind and belly in unison, as she drops onto her bed.
A spring pops loudly beneath her weight. It’s an old mattress. Her spine jars, sharp pains spread and shoot throughout her body. A million little electric shocks at each nerve-ending.
She can’t explain to herself what she has just seen. Why her family are ignoring her and copying their phones so gleefully.
She clenches her fists, the skin on her arms tighten, pulling taught the skin across her shoulders, stretching and dragging it over neat rows of pins.
She swings round and sits cross-legged at the head of her bed, puts on her headphones, and sets Leonard Cohen spinning again. The warm lilt of the song relaxes her.
She opens her iPad to the last blog entry and leans back.
Sharpness at the base of her spine and shoulders again. Discomfort. Unease. Urge. Something.
She tries not to think about it or about what she will do when she’s finished her breakfast. When the words have come to an end. When the song ends. How she will, if she will, if she can try to talk to them again.
If they can talk to her.
She is just trying to be happy right now. But she can’t help feeling certain – knowing for sure – that something has changed.
For them and now for her too.
My final morning at the facility was wonderful. I woke early and Saira took me to watch the first attempt at the release of the now healed Lyrebird. As Saira had foretold, it didn’t seem to want to come out at first. When the gate was flung wide open, it came over to look at the new space in the fence and the group of us for a moment, but then it dashed back to the bucket and sang into its own echo chamber again! Saira said that the nerves are normal, they are very wary birds and once they have found something that feels safe they tend to stay with it. So Saira told us all to step back and far to the side so the bird’s path out into the forest would be clear, then she went into the aviary and simply lifted the bucket off its head. The poor bird looked so surprised for a moment. Stood stock still in shock or disappointment and then something seemed to switch it on. I jumped at its quick movement! It ran flapping out of the gate and fluttered quickly, branch by branch, to the top of a tree - where it stayed. We watched it up there for a bit and then had breakfast as a group together before I left with Karl, who needed to get into town at a reasonable time in the morning. As I was driven away, the freed Lyrebird jumped down from the trees and swooped towards me and the four-wheel-drive, then it managed to sweep round and get halfway back to the group waving us off before it landed somewhat clumsily on the floor and disappeared into the trees on foot. A beautiful farewell from a beautiful free animal. On my flight back I had a stop over in Hong Kong, very different to Singapore (read my blog post about it here) and during this I had a chance to reflect on everything I had learned about the Lyrebird on my trip. I guess it is partly true that they can mimic unnatural sounds. But it is extremely misleading to suggest that they are doing it a lot in their natural habitat. I suppose that this kind of thing is all about exposure. Only Lyrebirds in captivity – in prolonged contact with the strange environment that humanity has created for itself – have been found to mimic our unnatural sounds, but only because they are trying to fit in with their new unnatural surroundings. They wouldn’t and don’t do it otherwise. These wonderful birds’ nature, their innate beauty, their joy; it all wants to return. And it does so swiftly as soon as they are set free in their natural surroundings. But while they are captive, they will easily succumb and willingly return to any influence. And the more I think about this, the more I realise that we are all a bit like that really. I certainly express myself properly and easily when I am in an environment where I feel happy and natural, and I certainly find this almost impossible when everything around me is disorientating and unnerving. Thanks very much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Why don’t you take a look round the rest of my blog for more interesting reads.
Full of fascination for the Lyrebirds and admiration for the blogger who didn’t just blindly believe what she saw on the internet and went to find out the truth for herself, and remembering there are always different perspectives on everything, Emma closes her iPad and her eyes in unison. She takes a deep cleansing breath in and out through her nose, finds that one little seed of confidence we all have deep inside of us, and slowly takes off her headphones hoping to hear a change in the house beneath her.
But the same notification sounds are still coming up from downstairs.
Her confidence wilts.
She uncrosses her legs and sits on the edge of her bed. She is really confused by what she thinks she has seen and heard of her family in the kitchen. Perhaps she is tired and imagining all this. Surely all three of them can’t have gotten as bad as it feels. Perhaps when she’s not down there they do more than just beep and grin.
Perhaps she needs a rest.
She slumps back onto her pillows and closes her eyes. But agitation keeps sleep at bay.
This can’t be real.
Her confidence finds new roots in her disbelief.
Suddenly she’s up and runs thuddingly down the stairs, barges through the living room door, which slams into the wall behind gouging out a bit of plaster, and on through the living room into the kitchen.
Standing in the doorway, alert and out of breath but calm and still, she watches them. She watches carefully. She listens carefully. She wants to be sure that what she thinks she is hearing and seeing is true.
Are they really just beeping. Can they really no longer talk.
She looks at her mum.
She turns to her dad.
She runs to him. Grabs him by the shoulders. Face to face. Desperation overcoming the disbelief, feeding a different kind of confidence.
“Diddly-oop.” He smiles and reaches to grab her for a hug.
She ducks away, into the corner of the kitchen by the cooker.
They all turn towards her, smile huge smiles, and continue with the noises as they move slowly in her direction.
“Beep-beep diddly-oop beep diddly beep oop.”
She opens her mouth to scream SPEAK TO ME, but something has definitely changed in her too. She involuntarily sings one word from deep within herself,
She claps her hand over her mouth in shock!
She turns away from her dad, from all of them, runs back through the living room and dashes straight out of the dark red, wooden front door, leaving it clattering and swinging in its frame behind her.
The estate that she lives on was built in the sixties; quite large detached houses with wide and tall rooves, spaced out well with gardens and garages, long sweeping roads, and a decent amount of trees around too.
A few metres down the road from her house a thin, bald man with a black and grey beard, wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a zipped-up hoodie, turns out of a wooded alley with his Labrador. She runs towards him. He starts to smile as she approaches. He opens his mouth.
What on earth is happening. This guy is beeping too.
She’d been slowing to a stop, to ask for his help, but she picks up the pace again and speeds on past him, heading now towards the corner shop. The man turns as she passes him, lets go of his dog lead and breaks into a run; chasing her, his dog left alone on the path.
“Boodly-bip-bap boodly-bip-bap.” Close behind her.
She keeps running.
“Boodly-bip-bap boodly-bip-bap.” Getting closer.
Inside the long, thin shop, which is divided into two aisles with a row of shelving down the middle, there are three people. An elderly woman in a grey anorak and cheap trainers at the back by the toiletries. A teenage boy in a football strip right in front of Emma staring at the chocolate bars. And the owner of the shop, in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt, leaning on the counter beside the till reading the paper.
She stands in the doorway and tries to shout HELP, but instead she sings “Lieeeeee…” again and claps her hand over her mouth in shock and fear again.
The woman turns towards her. “Bing.” She steps forward. “Bing”
The shop owner steps out from behind his counter. “Boop-boop”
The boy turns round to face her. “Bing-biggy-bopidy-bap.” Grinning.
Emma turns and runs out of the shop.
The three of them burst out of the shop one after the other, knocking whole shelves flying as they go, joining the man who left his dog behind chasing her down the hill.
“…boodly-bip-bap bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bip-biddy-bip bing-bing…”
Emma sees a blonde woman in a smart suit getting out of a white Audi. She runs up to her and grabs the woman by the mouth and back of head to silence her so that Emma can speak first.
“Lieeeeeee…” She sings again.
Emma shuts her own mouth quickly, unclamps her hands from the woman’s head and runs off.
What the hell?!
The woman joins the people chasing Emma.
The small crowd is now building to a cacophony.
“Boodly-bip-bap bing boop-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bing-bip boop-boop bing-bip boop-boop-boop.”
Emma passes a few more people as she runs down the hill away from her house. Each one of them is smiling and beeping in some weird way. And each one joins the crowd now chasing her.
“…boodly-bip-bap bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bip-bing-beep-bing chitty-chip-chap boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting bing-bip bing-bip bop-bop beeeeep…”
What the fuck is happening to the world?
Half-way down the hill, when she comes parallel to the entry gate of the local park, where there is a lake for walkers, a playground for toddlers, a glass-fronted sports centre and concrete moulded outdoor skate park, across the road from a small but busy petrol station, she stops and opens her mouth to scream, hoping someone there not taken by this weird affliction might be able to help her. But all Emma can do is sing that one word again.
She’s breathless now. The pains in her shoulders and the base of her spine are sharper too; deeper; scratching down and digging up. She can’t hold the note for long. She doesn’t have the energy or strength to start running again. She falls to her knees in the middle of the road.
The frantic beeping crowd catch up with her and surround her. Between the blur of their reaching hands and eager legs, and beyond the glare of their gleeful leaned-in faces she can see people, drivers and passers-by looking over, taking an interest, edging closer, circling. Joining in!
Each with their own kind of beep.
“…boodly-bip-bap bing boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap chitty-chip-chap bop-bop beep…”
There’s nowhere for her to turn. Her heart is racing. The pains are becoming too much to bear. She won’t let herself open her mouth to try to shout at the crowd to frighten them away, because she fears the lie that she will sing.
The beeping mass step on her heels and toes, kicking and knocking her just by being close. She turns and turns, lunges, leans, and tries to stand, dodges and ducks, but she cannot escape; she’s being suffocated, drowned out, crushed.
She takes a deep breath and tries one more time to break through, as hard as she can this time. They tighten against her shove and envelop her.
The pains in her body surge, filling her with heat. Something inside her wants to break free.
“…boodly-bip-bap-bing-boop-boop bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bop-bop-beep-beep biddly-biddly-bip tippetty-bing biddly-biggety bipedty-dip boop-boop…”
She tries to push them repeatedly, but she still cannot break through. Each attempt weakens her and, in so doing, each attempt fills her increasingly with anger and frustration.
The need to scream.
But she keeps it all in.
Holding it down while they hold her down.
Until there’s nothing else she can do.
The fear and the worry.
The pain and the lie.
Whatever it is.
It must come out.
A deep breath.
Her stomach and chest swirl.
Oxygen mixes with adrenaline.
Her mouth opens wide.
“Lieeeeeee…” her skin is going to burst “…k a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir…”…her favourite song fills the air, the delicately plucked guitar, the layering and building strings on the backing track, the warm crackles from the original record, her voice singing Leonard’s part, it all flows from deep within her… “…I have tried in my way to be free.”
Calm fills her.
She smiles a deep happiness.
She lets her song fill the air.
The frantic beeping people around stop to listen. Their beeps silenced. Their strength dissipated. She pushes through them easily and runs off down the hill.
The deep ache at the base of her spine pushes her on.
Her steps become longer and longer. Seconds are spent off the ground.
The scratching under her skins makes her spread her arms wide and broad.
Tens of seconds pass between steps.
Her skin tares open.
Soft, warm feathers shoot from her shoulders, down her arms, over her back and spread over her entire body; shredding and shedding her clothes as they do.
Her long, sweeping tail feathers finally sprout from the base of her spine.
Blue glints subtly on the back of her head.
The huge wings that her arms have become take her high up into the cool sky.
Gathering all around her from all over the country, and as she swoops on all over the world too, others follow. Others who have freed themselves. Others who also cannot help but sing their natural songs.
Far below and far behind them, the captive crowds continue repeating all they know. Beep-beep. Like a cheap, forgotten metronome. Bippidy-boop. Out of synch and irrelevant. Bip bip bip. Until they too find a way to break free from the boodly-bip-bap-bing-boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bop-bop-beep-beep biddly-biddly-bip-boop beep-barp-bap-bip tilly-tinkly-tip-tip top-top-tapetty-tip tipitty-tipitty-beep-beep thank bing-bip-bop-boop you toot-toot-tilly-tick for tiketty-tippetty-bing still biddly-biggety-bipedty-dip reading biddly-biggety-bipedty-boop all tinketty-topetty-toot-toot of chittity-chittity-chip-chap this cheep-cheep nonsense.