VINYLIA by Phillip Hill
Chapter Three – The Clocks of Seville
That year something went wrong with the clock on the Giralda, the 12th century Moorish bell tower which stood next to Seville’s Cathedral and which was the very symbol of the city. They called in the experts from Clockquirks, who spent a whole day examining the system. They started by making it sound one o’clock, one fifteen, one thirty and one forty five and continued through all the quarters of an hour up to twelve and twenty-four and even went beyond through twenty-five and twenty-six o’clock all the way up to seven quarters past thirty-two at which point they shrugged their shoulders and said they couldn’t find any fault with it. It seemed that they had at least bludgeoned the clock back to normality because everything worked properly again for the next hour as the crew stood in the square to check how it performed left to its own devices. As soon as the Clockquirks technicians departed, however, it became unpredictable again. Sometimes there was one chime missing, sometimes two and one night, while the usual crowd of people who had taken to gathering at the foot of the tower looked on in amazement, the hands went past eleven without producing any sound at all.
Engineers checked whether any subsidence had made the tower tilt. They spent days applying sets of weights to the mechanism. Nothing worked. The city government started letting anyone who had any kind of an idea at all try to fix things. Offers of help arrived from all over. The grounds around the cathedral filled up with self-appointed experts making presentations with the aid of flip charts on how to solve the problem mechanically, architecturally, electronically, geologically and tribologically. Several magicians turned up. Amateur shamans danced around the tower in time with the universe for a few hours. The whole construction was strewn with healing flowers. The city authorities let everyone have a go, except for the man who offered to use micro-explosives.
In the end, the Archbishop of Seville decided there was no alternative but to exorcise the thing. It was Moorish, after all. A grand ceremony was performed one evening with twelve master exorcists surrounding the tower and six more up inside the belfry. Thousands came to watch. The ritual took three hours and afterwards the crowd stayed for the midnight bells. Hundreds fell to their knees when the last chime of midnight rang out as it was supposed to. But like all the other remedies, it only provided a temporary solution. At eight the next evening the clock was having problems again.
Some Sevillians started to plan their journeys through the area around the cathedral so that they passed by at seven and half minutes and twenty-two and half minutes past or to the hour, the times which were furthest away from any ringing. Others reckoned that the best way to spare themselves any anxiety was to avoid the neighbourhood entirely. Unfortunately, the problem began to spread beyond the Giralda.
First it affected the clock in the nearby Plaza del Sorteo where the municipal lottery was drawn and the city government sat. Then the other clocks began to malfunction as well. There was constant discussion and argument in the city. Some thought that the spreading disorder was a sign of the end of the world. Others believed that there was some kind of divine message being broadcast and that, instead of interfering, people should just listen and try to understand what was being said to them. To this theory, it was objected that, if there was a message, all the clocks would be doing the same thing whereas on any given night, at eight o’clock say, one would strike five, another would strike three, and yet another would strike the hours normally.
Isidro Villanueva, a famous local physicist, who had discovered a particle he had named the “puton”, spoke about the situation on the city’s vidwalls at length one evening. He filled up a blackboard with equations as he theorised the possibility that there was a kind of tear in the fabric of the universe. Just as the hole in the ozone layer had been an indicator of the subsequent disastrous global warming which occurred, the faltering of the clocks of Seville might be a sign that there was some kind of breakdown in the time-space continuum. There was probably a lot more to his position but one particularly exciting and lengthy formula carried him beyond the right hand side of the screen and reportedly out of the room and he disappeared from view for the rest of the evening. He was followed, the next day, by José Santamaria y Paloma, a local philosopher, who stated that the problem might be subjective and not objective. It was obvious there was nothing wrong with the clocks, since the world’s leading experts had examined them. Perhaps, instead, what was happening, or was perceived to be happening, was the outcome of a viral infection with psychiatric effects, which he proposed to call Giralda syndrome. A weak point in his reasoning was that if there were an infection you would have expected that after festering for three months in Seville it would have spread to some other city as well. But no one seemed to be having problems in hearing clock chimes properly in nearby Cadiz, Cordoba or Malaga.
Of course, there was a very simple reason why the problem wasn’t spreading to Cadiz, Cordoba or Malaga. All of the Audiovores who had followed Charlie had ended up in Seville and none had ever set foot in any of the neighbouring cities.
When they had arrived the city was having a feria. Handsome horses cantered down the main avenues mounted by immaculately attired riders who displayed a studied elegance in every move they made. There seemed to be a group of dancers in every square and every group was dressed in a different set of hues – some were blue and black, others yellow and magenta, still others lime, grey and gold, and as the dancers moved the colours danced a slightly different dance, as if they were splashing out into the air from a magical pulsating fountain. More noticeable yet were the butterfly symbols wherever one looked: the fluttering kites, the pins everyone was sporting, the amazingly complicated ornamental combs the women wore in their hair, the marzipan cakes, the multi-coloured banners, the masks: all were designed to look like magnificent butterflies.
And the glorious hubbub! The Audiovores were quite capable of appreciating the beauty of sound without having to eat it all the time, just like conventional humans can look admiringly at the beauty of animals or plants without having to devour all the ones they happen upon. But the feria was such an unlimited and exciting, free and open aural banquet that they spent the first few days feasting unrestrainedly. It was an ecstatic experience, they did whatever they liked in the crowded streets and nobody seemed to notice – apart from a few horses – if there were some sounds missing here and there.
Even after the feria finished, Seville was still a pleasant and abundantly auditory place to be and none of them showed any inclination to leave. Of course, it was a lot quieter and they made a deliberate effort to avoid doing anything which would draw attention. The only problem was that they were never quite sure which things would go unnoticed and which things wouldn’t.
They never realised, for example, the consternation they caused when they attended flamenco dancing and singing. One journalist wrote a piece entitled ¿Qué le pasa al pataleo?(What’s wrong with the foot stamping?) because lots of performers seemed to be unable to keep time properly when stamping their feet or clapping their hands. But the Audiovores never read the papers and the looks of intense disgust which afflicted the artists after their disappointing exhibitions looked just the same to Audiovore eyes as the dramatic expressions they poured onto their features when they started dancing and singing.
Sometimes children came home from the playground in a state of great agitation saying they had been attacked by hobgoblins stealing their voices. It was very hard to get them to explain anything, but the hobgoblins were never seen and they never did anything to harm them physically. Most parents attributed this agitation to the Ramarama productions which were so popular and which many feared were flooding their young ones’ minds with over-spiced Subcontinental fantasies. Again, the Audiovores never noticed anything because suddenly running off in tears seemed to be the way children behaved normally.
One day, two of the Audiovores, Alfie and Oscar, went to see the local football derby between Betis and Sevilla. They had a wonderful time. Even the actual match was exciting, although they were never quite sure what was going on. Around the 70th minute they began to take a liking to the sound of the referee’s whistle, so that he lost all control of what was going on. The players soon discovered that the only limit to the fouls they could commit was their inventiveness and they argued over throw-ins, corners and free kicks like kids playing on the street. A couple of times while most of the players were arguing whether a goal had been scored, one of them raced away with the ball and knocked it in at the other end unnoticed. The match ended only when the players were all lying on the ground unable to continue, with the result somewhere between 9-11 and 13-12 and the crowd ecstatic and also exhausted.
But if there was one thing the Audiovores could never resist it was the sound of bells: doorbells, horse bells, school bells, church bells and, most of all, the wonderful sound of the Giralda. When there were big ceremonies, like the exorcism, the Audiovores made a point of not interfering, but it was impossible for them to give up eating the chimes entirely. And once you had had one it was difficult not to have another. Especially at midnight. Having twelve chimes ring out in the night air, was like being offered a slice of one’s favourite cake twelve times over by an insistent host. How could one resist?
After the bells had rung midnight though, the Audiovores had a problem they found it difficult to resolve in their first few days in the city: accommodation. They spent a number of uncomfortable nights sleeping in doorways or by the river. Finally they realised that it was simple for them to break unheard into empty offices and camp there till dawn. The next night they would move somewhere else.
Two of their number, Juliet and Mike, took advantage of this technique to burgle houses. They weren’t really interested in any of the loot; it was just a compulsion they had to steal (it was the kind of problem which was not infrequent with bargain basket Quikclones). Most of the things they stole they discarded into post-boxes or waste paper bins. A few valuable bracelets and necklaces were tossed away in the park. They were like anglers throwing their captures back into the water alive. All they really got from it, apart from the thrill, was the gastric discomfort which came from swallowing burglar alarms whole.
No one in Seville could connect any of the strange things which were happening to the Audiovores, because no one could suspect that they even existed. Anyone attributing the events to people who ate sound would have had to be completely mad. Life just seemed to have become unpredictable and unexplainable. Was the universe unravelling from inside the Giralda? What was alarming the children? Who was squatting in the offices at night? Were they angels, having something to do with the divine message the bells were trying to convey? Or were they devils? Ghosts? An advertising stunt? And, perhaps the most intensely debated point: who had won the Betis-Sevilla match? The questions went on and on.
But human beings get used to even the strangest of situations – wars, terrorism, impending disaster, cruel regimes. They just adapt their behaviour and try to focus on other things, so it was not entirely surprising that after some time most of the conversations in Seville were not about the bizarre happenings in town but other things, such as the level of the Guadalquivir river, the latest Ramarama offerings, the changeability of the weather and also the growing popularity of a small restaurant called Don Casmurro.
Don Casmurro had been around for many years. It had never received above average reviews and none of its cooks would have honestly claimed it had ever served one portion of above average food either. But word of mouth started to mark it out as a place like no other although it was hard to say exactly why. If asked whether the food at Don Casmurro was special, nobody really seemed to remember. What they did remember was the quality of the experience as a whole, so it stood to reason that the food must have been good as well.
There were only a few large tables at Don Casmurro; unless there were eight people in your party, you almost always had to share one with someone else. But this, some of the regulars said, was one of the reasons which made it special. You always met such interesting characters.
As soon as a group of customers entered the restaurant and found somewhere to sit, the head waiter would glide into view. If he recognised a customer he would invariably say, “A pleasure to see you again,” to which a regular customer might reply, “Thank you, Charlie.” And the regular customer would almost always scan the room with his eyes until they settled on an attractive waitress, who was usually in a corner, looking as if she was afraid to bother anybody, and he would say, “Good evening, Frieda.”
One might have thought that a restaurant would have been the last place to find Audiovores working but the two of them had developed skills which were crucial to the popularity of the place.
Charlie had immediately taken a liking to the language they spoke in Seville even though it could be a bit oily at times and some people had lots of raspy s’s which you had to spit out like pips. One advantage in being able to eat a language was that learning it was almost an automatic process. It was naturally absorbed and Charlie had quickly acquired an amazing command of post-Spanish. It was thanks to his ability with words that he had become head waiter at Don Casmurro. He had the knack of creating a truly special atmosphere. He would hover behind the diners at a table in the manner of the best and most demure waiters, but what he did was something which had never been done in the history of waiting. He improved the conversations. By eating a word here and there, a syllable or sometimes a single vowel or consonant, Charlie could transform even the most boring sentence into a statement of enormous originality, wit, wisdom or intelligence. You could say he was a sculptor of conversations, chiselling away the dross to leave only the potential and beautiful inner statue they contained.
It has to be said that he fell short in some of the more traditional waiting skills. He had no idea what to recommend, for example; for him oysters and cheese or turnips and trifle would have been perfectly acceptable combinations. He also found it difficult to remember who had ordered what and sometimes he was completely unable to tell the dishes apart when he brought them to a table. Pork, beef and lamb all looked equally and identically dead to him and green leafy vegetables were one vast area of uncertainty. But none of this mattered because after just a few minutes his clients were floating on a cloud of euphoria. He was so good at altering conversations that nobody really noticed that anything strange was happening. They just felt that the food must have special properties or that the wine had brought out the real, fascinating identities which all of us have hidden somewhere inside us. At Don Casmurro everyone could believe that they were brilliant and irresistible. It was definitely the place to go if you wanted to impress someone. There were even some couples who had gone out on the flimsiest of dates and who, simply because of the impression they had made on each other over a meal at Don Casmurro, had ended up marrying. Years later their main activity would be wondering why.
Frieda also reshaped conversations, although her approach was somewhat different. She had fallen in love with Spanish poetry, which she devoured. And while Charlie steered and snipped at conversations to bring out their best possible meaning, Frieda focused almost exclusively on sound. If you sat down at Frieda’s table it was like becoming instantly drunk. No one had any idea what they were saying but it all sounded marvellous. Sometimes while doing this Frieda was so impressed by her own concoctions that she could hardly contain herself and she would turn to the mirror and get her image to congratulate her by silently clapping her excitedly clutched hands before her lips. There were times when she was almost too good. The beauty of the music she was making gave her a rapt expression and the enjoyment of it brough out a special luminousness on her skin so that, quite often, some of the male diners would stare transfixed at her, as if turned to stone, their forks arrested in their trajectory half way to their mouths.
If he noticed, Charlie would usually find a way to produce an accidental crash or a bang in their vicinity to release them from their trance, but nobody ever came completely back to earth when dining under Frieda’s supervision. Every single one of her customers left the restaurant wearing a slightly stunned expression.
When there were not too many customers or when there was a special group, Charlie and Frieda arranged it so that Charlie handled the first part of the meal, which became a pensive, balanced, intelligent and insightful experience and then he left fruit, cheese, desserts and liqueurs in Frieda’s hands, when everything became wild and unpredictable, after which people who had been complete strangers hugged each other with intense emotion before saying goodbye and going their separate ways.
Life, they both felt, could hardly have been better. They were in love with each other. Their work was enjoyable and creative and they were netting such extravagant tips that they were beginning to consider the possibility of having a baby. And then one day when they became really good perhaps they would create the perfect dinner conversation. But one meal was to change the direction of their lives completely.
The owner of the restaurant, who realised how important they were to the establishment but still hadn’t worked out why, greeted them one morning and excitedly blurted out that “El Gordo” was going to come and dine that evening. The man would have the whole restaurant to himself and his party. He urged them both to be at their best. El Gordo could really make or break a place.
When El Gordo turned up that evening, together with a group of seven hangers-on, Charlie was taken aback by his appearance. He didn’t look gordo -or fat- at all. Why did they call him “The Fat One” when he looked like his name should have been El Flaco, “The Thin One”. One of the cooks explained that he was not yet fat because he had only been El Gordo for a few months. “Just wait till next year,” said the cook, “and you’ll see how plump he gets.” Everyone in the kitchen thought this was hilarious and they banged on their pots and pans in appreciation. As far as Charlie was concerned this made things more mystifying still, but he put it all out of his mind and concentrated on doing a good job.
Even before the diners had finished their hors-d’oeuvres, Charlie knew that it was going to be a successful evening. El Gordo talked so much that Charlie could have extracted six or seven completely different but equally wonderful speeches out of everything he said. He ended up using every rhetorical device he knew. El Gordo’s guests were in real, as opposed to feigned, awe – something El Gordo had never really experienced.
Charlie was therefore in a relaxed state of mind when he left the table after the second course to let Frieda finish off the meal. He went into the staff’s changing room and walked through it onto a small balcony. There were three other balconies to his right which were connected to the dining room. From where he was he could see some of the diners through the windows and he could hear that they were laughing uproariously.
He watched the stars and the moon for a few minutes and he waited for the next windtram to come along. Seville had developed one of the largest windtram networks in the world and Charlie loved the swishing sound they produced, like a silky curtain being drawn erotically down the tracks. Whenever he had a minute he would come out onto the balcony to catch a snip of it. The number 58 came down the hill and he gulped it down. Then the number 24, his favourite, came rattling up the hill and he swallowed that too. He felt a pleasant electric feeling surge through his whole body. And then he seemed to be inside a dense cloud of marijuana smoke. He turned and saw that on the balcony next to him El Gordo had just lit up a 9 1/2 inch Mario y Juana spliff. The man’s face lit up every time he puffed, making it look almost hollow. He was staring straight ahead of him. Charlie tried to blend in with the wall behind him. Another tram went by but Charlie checked his urge to eat the sound. And then another one.
“Don’t stop on my account,” El Gordo said. He dragged on the cigar. His face lit up brightly and Charlie could see that he was staring straight at him with an intense expression. He had never seen anyone look so gaunt.
“Now tell me,” El Gordo said, “just how do you do that? And who exactly are you?”