Static by Bethan James

When I was little, I wondered how something as dainty as a radio could fit so many people inside it. How all the owners of those droning voices could come from a thing the size of a toaster. A whole tiny town’s worth trapped inside, each person pressing themselves against the grill of the speaker when their turn came to talk or sing.  

“Don’t be silly, Sarah,” mother said. “The sound doesn’t come from people inside the radio. It comes from the air waves.” 

“What’s an air wave?”  

“A wave that goes through the air.” Mother rolled her eyes at me, and carried on stirring the pan over the stove.  

“I don’t get it…” 

“You will when you’re older. Now pass me the seasoning.” 

*

Mr Evans tried to explain how a radio worked in my Physics class one day at school. 

Transmitting               Disconnect                  AM/FM           Spectrum 

                        Electro-magnets                        Frequency                Signal 

Receivers        Antennae                     Conductor                   Voltage 

His words were meaningless static floating through my mind. Was I tuned in to the wrong frequency, or did it really not make sense after all?  

Mr Evans said that anyone who didn’t understand should stay behind after class for extra tuition. Instead, I picked up my bag and walked out the door.  

*

Years later, as an administrator at a big law firm, the grain of dissatisfaction that rubbed away inside me grew and grew until I felt it was starting to choke me. All that filing, paperwork, and invoicing would’ve been bad enough on a standard corporate client litigation. But when you’re doing twelve hour days working on some case with dirty old men and young girls and grooming… It gets right inside your head. And there’s no button in your mind to switch off the victims’ voices replaying just like they do up on the witness stand.   

*

Nights were as quiet as the bottom of the ocean in my house. That’s when I really started to feel the pressure. It crushed my chest in the early hours. Did I send that urgent email? Did I fill in the correct forms? Did I get that signature I urgently needed? So I would pass the blank early morning hours staring at a peculiar stain on my wall, which never ceased to fascinate me until 4am.  

*

One day, when the bags under my eyes looked particularly bulbous and purple, the receptionist at work, Claire, cornered me by the Nespresso machine.   

“My dad, he struggles with it too Sarah,” she said. 

“Huh? Struggles?” I stared at her.  

“Oh you know… insomnia.”  

“I’m not an insomniac. I’m a night owl.” 

“Of course, that’s what I meant. He finds it hard to drop off. That’s all. There’s only one thing that helps.”  

“I said I was fine.” 

“Dad listens to the shipping forecast. Says he finds all that talk of storms out at sea strangely soothing. You’ll give it a go, won’t you?”  

I couldn’t work out if her face looked pleading, smug, or both. But I said thanks anyway.  

*

Warning of gales in Trafalgar… Fair Isle, South 4 or 5… very rough in West… Low just south of Iceland… losing its identity … Fisher, cyclonic showers… High Dogger 1026 dissipating… recent fog, falling slowly… 

*

The radio waves washed over me, lulling my body into a slumber. For a moment I felt my bed sway like a rowing boat at sea. I reached a hand out, half expecting it to dip into cool water. Instead, the quilt was cold to my touch. I wanted Jacob’s warm arm next to me. Like it used to be. 

I let myself drown drowsily under the waves for a moment. Sinking. The calming tones of the shipping forecast began to penetrate my mind.  

9.43 this morning… west wing of law courts… advance warning of high pressure environment.  

Despite sleep weighing my eyelids down like an anchor, I sat upright and looked towards to the radio. For a moment I thought someone else must be in the room. The voice had a different quality to it now. An immediacy. And it was speaking right at me.

14.27 today… Gale Andrews approaching in the corridor… safely avoid the storm by heading north. 

How could they know about how much I detested Gale, that arrogant lawyer who all the other women in the courts seemed to fawn over? Creepy bastard. I must be hearing things. Seriously need to get some sleep, I thought. So I switched off the radio and stared at that stain on the wall again.  

*

That afternoon, Gale saw me coming out of the meeting room, and went straight for me. He was probably planning to do that awful thing where he places a hand a too low on your back, and tells you to call him if things are getting too much. Usually I panic and freeze. But I remembered the radio message. I looked straight ahead – north – and noticed Claire the receptionist. We got chatting, and I managed to escape Gale’s clutches.  

The people within the radio had steered me into safer waters.  

I heard the voices through my headphones when I went out for a midnight walk to clear my mind. They told me to avoid Primrose Lane, someone was lurking there with ill intent.  

I heard the voices over the dictaphone which I was supposed to be transcribing notes from for a court case. They whispered to me that the suspect was guilty and a liar.  

I heard the voices coming from my neighbour’s TV in the flat below. They revealed he was the one who let his mates know when I was away on holiday, to burgle me.  

*

One day, I got home back home after a particularly stressful case. My hands quivered as I fumbled for the light switch. The radio in my kitchen hummed like it was a net full of trapped bluebottles. I picked up a knife.   

I knew what I had to do.  

Biography
Bethan James has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize; is a Neil Gaiman & Word Factory’s Fables for a Modern World winner; New Writing South New Buds Award recipient; and published in magazines like Litro. She is signed by DHH Literary Agency.

Image: unsplash.com

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