VINYLIA by Phillip Hill
Chapter Two – The Taste of the Sea and the Taste of the Wind
A few weeks later, a Thompo Air SuperSardiner bound for Lisbon lined up on runway 30 at Windhoek’s Oryx Airport. It was carrying an almost complete load of 1004 passengers and a crew of sixteen. There was heavy rain that morning and the sky was black everywhere you looked. The plane was twenty minutes late on its estimated take-off time of 9.40 am. The cabin manager had just reminded everyone to turn off any ALFs, BJRs, STWs, XPMs or, just to be safe, any other equipment which had a three letter abbreviation.
Half the seats between rows 45 and 60 were taken up by a group of teenagers from Porto who were returning from a school trip and were busy singing the rudest songs they could think of. As the Supersardiner suddenly launched itself along the ground towards take-off, a four-year-old girl in row 83 called Maria Motawele was sick, quite impressively for a girl of her size, establishing a connection in her mind she would never dispel between acceleration and gastric irritation which in later life would cause her extreme discomfort even just watching fast cars, lifts, swings, roundabouts, exploding champagne corks and springboard divers.
The SuperSardiner turbo sewage compressor engines started making their usual tortured groaning and whining noises. The schoolchildren were still singing bravely, although they had lost most of their tune and their rhythm. Then the plane left the ground and, within seconds of it becoming airborne, the engines appeared to cut off. All of the singing drained away abruptly and the plane continued to climb in complete silence, like a blithely soaring cloud. Maria Motawele burst out into a smile of amazement at this magical sensation, but all around her passengers searching for re-assurance in other people’s faces saw their same pallor, sweat and alarm staring back at them from every other seat and nothing but black cloud crowding every window. Some of them began to scream. No one heard them. A few minutes later the captain came on the air.
“Hello, this is your captain speaking….”
The announcement got no further. The plane continued its bewildering flight, without an audible pilot. The passengers clung ashen-faced to whatever or whoever they could get a grip on.
It took about a quarter of an hour for the crew to explain to the Audiovores who had been distributed throughout the cabin that they didn’t have to eat all the sounds on the airplane, just the engine noise and that the captain’s messages, in particular, were not to be swallowed. As Frieda Belchwell recalled in her autobiography, A Windy Life, some years later: “We had always lived on the outskirts of town eating animal sounds in the yard. The only order we had been given was to eat the noise on the plane, but how could we be expected to distinguish between noise and useful sounds?”
Presently the captain came on the air again. He explained that they had mounted a new sound-insulating system and that there was no reason to be alarmed. He repeated the concept three times and also made it clear that the fact that he had said it so often wasn’t a reason for alarm either. He wished them a pleasant, quiet flight.
The flight announcements suffered no further interruptions once the Audiovores had been clearly instructed not to touch them. But some other situations were still not totally clear to them. For example, was the sound from the screens people were watching engine noise or not? It was certainly produced by some kind of engine. And what about the clumsy trolleys going up and down the aisles? The noise of the soda cans opening? And then the pouring and the bubbles fizzing in the cups? And the toilets? What exactly constituted an engine anyway? Since they were not able to consult, their decisions on which noises to suppress differed widely. Walking round the cabin was like passing from one climate zone to another, ranging from the tropical, with lots of loud voices and percussion, through several intermediate stages, right down to arctic winter, where all you could hear was a sense of muffled gloom.
Thompson Shikeda would probably have been interested to compare the impact of all these different approaches. When he had managed to gain access to Schrodinger’s house he had proposed to take all the singing animals off his hands if he was also given the ownership of the Audiovores. For this he was willing to pay ten times the amount of money he had tossed into Schrodinger’s yard. Schrodinger was extremely happy to get rid of his animal problem and also see the end of the massed spectators on the perimeter of his house so it didn’t take long for him to accept.
Shikeda’s idea was to be the first (and, if possible, only) airline to offer silent flight. Turbo sewage compressor engines were wonderful from an environmental standpoint but acoustically they were probably the most distressing there had ever been in the history of aviation. Down the line he was also thinking of another development, namely getting the Audiovores to eat people’s conversations as well unless passengers paid for a license to speak during the flight. In a talk which he had had with his closest advisors the day before the Audiovore in-flight experiment, he had expressed the opinion that his tactic was actually a gift to his customers, because it was only by paying for something that you really appreciated it and thanks to him they would be able to attach the proper value to conversation with their fellows.
When the plane landed in Lisbon eight hours later, several passengers, while filing off, remarked to the crew how restful the flight had been. Later that day, while drinking a glass of Lisbon’s new fashionable drink, a Contrafa Sour, the captain got in touch with Shikeda and reported that technically the flight had been a resounding success but that there had been some initial misunderstandings. After a brief discussion, it was decided that for the return flight the Audiovores would only board the plane after all the passengers had embarked and the captain had been able to inform everyone that a new noise reduction system was being tested.
This was not to be, however. The next morning, when the crew assembled in the lobby of their hotel, none of the Audiovores were there. Their rooms were searched but there was no trace of them. They had all slipped away the night before without being heard (not a difficult thing for them to do, of course).
Frieda Belchwell again: “We had never been through anything like it. Eating eight hours worth of white noise from the engines had had a devastating effect. When I got to my room, I curled up on my bed in terrible pain. But after a minute I had to get up, because I had an irresistible compulsion to walk, to jump, to run, to spin.”
The other Audiovores were all feeling just as bad and after a while they all gathered in one room to decide what to do. It wasn’t easy to conduct a discussion, since none of them could stand still, but their meeting came to a very rapid conclusion: they all agreed that, whatever happened, they were never going to board an airplane again. Secondly, and this was less a decision than a spontaneous and silent migration, they needed to get outside immediately and walk off their excess drive to move.
At first they didn’t even think about where they were going. It was such a relief to be able to travel in a straight line without coming up against a wall and having to turn around that they ranged the streets almost at random. After half an hour they came across a square with a church which vaguely resembled one they had been able to see from Schrodinger’s house in Windhoek. They stood there and peered up at the steeple, hoping for some inspiration. Some of them held their fingers in their ears, for the engine noise had ravaged their stomachs so badly that almost any sound made them feel queasy. As the twenty of them stood there staring up into the sky, their formal clothes, their clumsy stances and the pained expressions on their faces made them resemble a party of missionaries for a particularly depressing sect who were all going through a moment of profound self-doubt.
A few boys gathered to gape at them as the Audiovores lingered, wondering how they would ever get home. Some of them were of the persuasion that this was their neighbourhood church or at least similar enough to mean they must be within striking distance of Schrodinger’s. Most, however, realised that they still had some way to go.
“South,” suggested Charlie, the logical one, pointing to a road sign which indicated that direction. And so they set out vaguely heading for Africa. It wasn’t easy to keep going South because the roads swerved and turned and wound and climbed diagonally up hills and sidled down again. And then there was Everett, constantly stopping to reflect on things he never disclosed. They often had to wait while one of them went back fifty yards to retrieve him and set him in motion again with a sharp tug.
They found themselves going round in circles. After they came back to the church for the third time, a pretty blonde Audiovore called Patty noticed that a newspaper stand was selling maps and went over and bought one. It didn’t go as far as Windhoek but it was a start.
It took them a few hours to descend from G6 through F5, G4 and H3. They had been wondering what the thick blue line at the bottom of the map was and when they reached G2 they found out: a vast expanse of flowing water.
Here they had their first stroke of luck. They discovered a ferry station nearby and managed to get a boat across.
The river Tagus was so wide that they thought they were crossing the sea. When they reached the other side, they stood on the shore for ten minutes, looking back, in awe of what they had achieved. They set off again, brimming with confidence. Their bodies were returning to normal: the pain in their stomachs had subsided. Their urge to walk was no more than a tingling in their legs and, when they walked out of G1 and off the edge of their map, it vanished all together, leaving them all with a sudden, unexpected sense of exhaustion. They began to realise they would not get home that night and would need a place to sleep.
About a mile later, as they rounded a bend, they saw a truck parked on the roadside. From it, there came a familiar sound, like a thousand people frantically trying to communicate in Morse Code in some ancient operations room. It was full of chicks, peeping. The Audiovores stood looking and listening and then Charlie climbed in. One by one they all followed, re-arranging the boxes so that they could all fit, and they sat ensconced and happy there. They couldn’t have found anything which felt more like home; they could have stayed there forever. They all fell asleep contentedly.
When they woke up, a few hours later, the truck was running along a wide road. None of them knew how long they had been travelling and they couldn’t tell where they were going, but they all shared a sense of elation. They had crossed the sea and now they had found this ride: fate seemed to be placing stepping stones on their path. As the hours went by they really began to believe they were going home. After all where would anyone be taking chicks, if not to Schrodinger’s?
Their expectations increased even further when the truck came to a stop and they heard a gate being opened. It sounded just like Schrodinger’s gate and the gravel beneath the truck’s wheels sounded just like Schrodinger’s gravel. And so when the truck drove through the gate and the doors opened they were expecting to see Schrodinger’s gruff features. Instead, they were astonished to find themselves face to face with a small, red-haired man with glasses, though they were not half as astonished as he was. He scurried away shouting and the Audiovores all jumped out and hurried off in the opposite direction straight towards a high fence. When they reached it, they started climbing and then someone somewhere unleashed the dogs. They heard them coming, barking fiercely. They began to climb faster, except for Everett, who was lagging behind as usual and hadn’t even reached the bottom of the fence yet. He was still five yards away as the dogs came pounding up to him. And then he did something amazing. He turned round to face them and ate their barking. They stopped and sniffed the ground trying to find their voices. They whimpered and then they tried to bark again but Everett snapped the sound clean out of the air and they all turned tail and ran away faster than they had come. This simple event later gave rise to the common idiom “to eat someone’s bark”, meaning to see someone’s bluff or to take the wind out of their sails.
Everett climbed the fence with slow dignity. As he stepped down on the far side, the other Audiovores made way for him and for the first time he walked in front. That single action changed his status from eccentric to leader. They crossed the grass behind the compound going South. They went on through the meadows, over the hills, past the trees. They were happy, they were together, they were strong, they were going home and nothing could stop them.
Frieda described what happened next as follows:
“As we walked we felt hungry for the first time. We ate the joyful sounds of the gulls and then the sounds of the kites, the thrushes, the herons and all the other many many birds there were, which seemed to be multiplying to fill our hunger. And then we heard a sound like a hundred people and, as we advanced, it became a thousand people and then ten thousand people sleeping in tune together, all breathing deeply in and out as one. The sun came up and we fell to the ground upon the cliffs and we ate the sound of the ocean, which was endlessly bitter, because it was everywhere in front of us telling us there was no way we could go home.”
By going South they had reached the end of Europe at Cape Saint Vincent. They sat near the huge lighthouse buffeted by the relentless sound of the gaping, heaving ocean. The bitterness of the sea must have seeped into their hearts because they had their first falling out. And, when they had finished maligning one another, they cried. Every May the Audiovores still commemorate that sad date, which they have named Vincent’s Day, by gathering in houses to eat melancholic songs which they call “faros”, from the local word for a lighthouse.
It was hours before any of them said anything again and it was almost midday before they began to discuss what to do next. Each one of them seemed to have a different plan. But there were only two people any of the others would have followed on that day and so they split into two groups. One decided to return to the city with Charlie, hoping that somehow they would find someone to help them get back to Windhoek. The other group preferred to continue to walk and keep as far away from the madness of plain human beings as possible.
We have lost the traces of almost all of the Audiovores who, that day on the cliffs, decided to follow Everett. Sightings of their descendants have been reported from Gibraltar to Vladivostok. You come across them sometimes sitting in the long grass at the bend of a river. When they hear anyone approach they rush away and cover their tracks. But it is clear that they survived, multiplied and succeeded in their plan to avoid all contact with plain humans.
Ironically, the only one who ever returned to society was Everett, the person who led them out. He kept a journal of his travels from which it would seem that he spent the first six years together with the other Audiovores and then for some reason wandered alone for eight years more before he walked slowly into a small town not far from Paris one day and became almost instantly famous. The Audiovores had no direction planned; all they were trying to do was to keep away from inhabited places. They could have just holed up in some remote mountain hideaway, but Everett describes them as continually travelling. He never provides any names of places and so it is only possible to infer where they went. It seems undeniable that they crossed the Pyrenees during their first year of walking, but that is the last point of transit everyone agrees on. By the time Everett refers to them camping by a great river, the experts are divided between the Rhine and the Danube and there are some who suggest it was the Elbe or even the Loire or the Po.
Everett’s feat with dogs that first night made a lasting impression on all the Audiovores who had seen it. Soon the ones accompanying him began holding their own “bark hunts”. Whenever they came upon a pack of wild dogs they deliberately stirred them up and then when the dogs tried to come after them they would pretend to run away and it was only when the dogs were upon them and in full cry (the barkpeak as they called it) that they would turn and take the bark from their pursuers’ mouths. The Audiovores found this extremely exciting and claimed that the taste of this frenzied barking was incomparable. Even so, the chases were extremely dangerous. Everett reports one case where an Audiovore was badly mauled. And of course nowadays the famous dog runs which are held every year in Plovdiv, Graz and Riga on the anniversary of Vincent’s Day also see frequent accidents.
Everett himself never took part in these chases, he watched from a distance, always “plodding along behind” as he puts it, although it is also clear that Everett was slower because the path he was travelling on was much longer than the one his companions were following. They were just walking to avoid contact with ordinary humans, while Everett was also constantly travelling with his mind, scanning the hedges, the fields beyond, the woods, the mountains and the sky and most of all he was exploring and examining all the sounds he heard.
Thanks to Everett’s journal we can now answer the question Schrodinger first asked himself when he saw Everett closing his eyes or looking into the distance. Everett was thinking almost all the time about what sounds tasted like. These reflections make up about a third of his journal. He tells us dog’s bark is crisp and smoky, that the main feature of the croaks of frogs is resilience, eating them is somewhat similar to walking on a springy wooden plank. Rivers, but especially, mountain streams, ripple all over your palate. Some tastes get covered over and over again. There are twelve different types of wind, he decides, after much consideration. In the early years, he could never resist the sound of cows. Whenever he saw a field of them, he would risk contact with plain humans to be able to capture their sound. There is in particular a famous, almost ecstatic description of a place where he is captivated by the “elemental succulence of mooing”. In view of the uncertainty of Everett’s itinerary it is not surprising that many cities, most notably Augsburg, Chartres and Aarhus, have claimed that it was their cows he was talking about.
It was soon after this encounter that Everett struck out on his own. It is quite likely that this corresponded to some change of mind in him. It is noticeable that there is a shift in emphasis as soon as he begins to travel alone. In the early parts of his journal he seems to be impressed by big things and big sounds: waterfalls, landslides, thunderstorms, a hundred geese suddenly taking to the air around him, yet the more he travels alone the smaller the scale of what impresses him becomes. He begins to reflect on twigs snapping, a single bee in flight or water falling one drop at a time slowly on a stone.
The last section of his book, which covers the year he spent before he returned to society, goes even farther. He relinquishes description entirely and all he notes down is page after page of triplets of sounds, or trisonics as they are usually called:
My chattering teeth
Rusty door swinging
Train far away
Pebbles against a milestone
Giggling in the valley
Entering a thicket
Rubbing a waxy cabbage leaf
Someone washing their face
Chain dragging in the sea
Stones plopping here and …
Dance music from the village
Scratching my head
Scratching my head
Scratching my head
But many years would elapse before anyone would be able to read any of this journal. At two o’clock in the afternoon of the first Vincent’s Day, on 16 May in the second year of the Age of Vinylia (2 AV), Charlie shook Everett’s hand. They wished each other good luck. Neither thought they would ever meet again.
Copyright Phillip Hill 2013