Looking back now, it‘s hard to believe that it all began only a couple of weeks ago . . .
I ought to mention that I‘m a sucker for bargain offers so, when I saw this reel-to-reel recording tape offered at a fraction of the usual price, I simply had to get some. Just to try it, you understand. I give the chap in the shop his due. He didn‘t make any false promises. It had been used, he said, but, if so, anything on it would have been erased; he ran some through to show me. He didn‘t pretend that it was new. Not at less than a third of the usual price. What did I expect ?
I certainly didn‘t expect to hear what I heard the following morning . . .
I thought I‘d switched the machine to ‘Record‘. So I was a little startled to hear the sound of a voice. I looked at the machine again, and realized that I had, in fact, switched it to ‘Playback‘. And then it dawned on me. Obviously, I‘d left the machine switched on and the mike plugged in when my wife had called me away to the ‘phone. The voice must be that of young Jonny, who‘d come into the room in my absence. I would have to speak to my small son about interfering with my recorder.
I ran the tape back, and began to record one of my radio stories. I often do that, and then I can play them back to see how they sound to the listener. There was not the slightest doubt that this time I‘d set the machine to ‘Record‘ and that any earlier recording would have been wiped off automatically. Not the slightest doubt. I want to make that absolutely clear.
When I‘d finished recording the story I ran the tape back, switched over to ‘Playback‘ and sat down to listen. Nothing. Not even a crackle. That‘s odd, I thought. It recorded Jonny. Why not me ? Then, as the tape ran on, I heard a voice. A child‘s voice, faint and far away. The voice became clearer, as if the volume was being turned up. A boy‘s voice, I think. But not Jonny‘s.
At first, I wasn‘t on his wave-length, as it were. He‘d been speaking for a few seconds when I realized it was all in verse – of a sort. I hadn‘t really taken any of it in when the recording apparently ended and the voice began to fade away. I fancy – I can‘t be sure – that he was beginning to read the same verse over again. I ran the tape back and began to play it again. This time, I thought, I‘ll get it all down on paper. And I did. I had to play it back a few times – I‘m not a fast writer and I can‘t do shorthand – but in the end I had it. And, do you know, I couldn‘t make head or tail of it ?
The great white bird falls headlong from the sky;
Falls from blue heaven into the wrinkling sea.
Bones, broken bones, are washed up on the shore,
Bones of the ‘plane, bodies of travellers,
Three score and two, dead in the cold Ægean.
It all sounded like a rather amateurish effort at describing a ‘plane disaster in verse. By now, I was – well, intrigued. A ‘plane crash in the Ægean ? Sixty-two passengers lost ? I tried to recall such an event, but I‘ve got the usual memory for such things. A week after a catastrophe and I‘m hard put to it to remember where it happened, never mind the number of casualties.
Next morning I went down to the reference library and looked up the record. Yes, there had been a ‘plane down in the Ægean. But that was ten years ago, and anyway it was a military craft. The crew had been lost and half a dozen service personnel. But it wasn‘t anything like sixty-two. And a military ‘plane wouldn‘t be all white, would it ?
I called in at the shop where I‘d bought the tape. I thought I might trace the owner of the voice that way. But the shopkeeper was quite short with me. It simply wasn‘t possible, he said, that the tape he‘d sold me had any previous recording on it. It seems they put it through some process called ‘degaussing‘. It de-magnetizes the tape completely and it removes all previous recording. So it simply couldn‘t happen that any previous recording would be left on the tape. It simply couldn‘t happen.
I couldn‘t argue with him. He obviously knew far more about the tape-recording business than I do. He did suggest that I might have made a genuine error and put another tape in the machine instead of one that I‘d bought from him.
There was only one way to prove it. I bade him good day, and left the shop.
My car was parked some thirty yards away but, before I could reach it, I was stopped dead in my tracks. A board outside the newsagents‘ announced ‘Plane Down in Med‘. Good Lord, I thought. what a coincidence ! I went into the shop, bought a copy of the paper, and made my way to the car. Before I drove off, I opened the newspaper and read the headline. ‘Plane Down in Ægean‘ followed by the rather meagre account one gets in a first report.
I drove home rather thoughtfully . . .
And I was more than a little intrigued to hear on the lunch-time news that the ‘plane, an all-white one, had come down in the Ægean Sea with the feared loss of everyone on board. It was thought that the total death-roll, including members of the crew might be over sixty, but the number was uncertain until the passenger list had been re-checked. What did knock me endways was the time of the crash. Eleven-thirty a.m. British Standard Time.
The verse I had in my hand had been written down almost two hours before that plane had gone down into the sea . . .
I felt in need of moral support. Nobody would believe such a nonsense. Nobody. I called my wife. ‘Darling, do you remember I was doing some recording yesterday morning ?‘ She did remember. ‘And do you remember what time it was ?‘ She remembered that, too. Just before ten o‘clock when she‘d brought me coffee, because she‘d wanted to get off right away to do some shopping.
‘Right !‘ I said. ‘Now listen to this and tell me whether I‘m hearing things !‘
I ran the tape back and set it to ‘Playback‘. She listened patiently to the whole of the story I‘d recorded. No trace of a child‘s voice. None.
She smiled understandingly.
‘Darling, it was a lovely leg-pull, but I do like the story !‘
Then she left. After a long time I got up, ran the tape back, switched to ‘Playback‘ and sat down to hear my own story once more. Nothing happened. The tape ran on. Not a sound. Neither my own voice nor the voice of anyone else. Then, faint and very far off, I heard the voice. The sound came nearer, verse again. But not the same verse. Quite different. And this time I was ready with pen and paper.
We talk of overcrowded earth
Our teeming human race,
But, truth to tell, it is not so,
Most of this world is space.
The iron from heaven which struck the snake
Fell in a lonely place.
I sat gazing stupidly at the words. Whatever it was, whatever it meant, I didn‘t like the feeling. The iron from heaven that struck the snake ? What on earth could it mean ?
I called my wife. This time she seemed less willing to break off from whatever she was doing.
‘Sit there !‘ I said, "and listen to this ! Then read this verse I‘ve copied down !‘
And she sat there and listened, with ill-concealed impatience, to the story which she‘d heard only a few minutes earlier. She got up a long time before the end.
‘It‘s very nice ! One of your best ! But I really have got other things to do.‘
It seemed diplomatic not to bring up the matter of the verse.
Well, I ran the tape backwards and forwards until I was dizzy, but all I had to show for the morning‘s efforts was a few lines of doggerel on the paper before me.
I listened to the news with some interest but no iron seemed to have fallen from heaven that day, and if any snakes had been struck they were keeping quiet about it. I felt oddly let down.
Until the next morning, that is . . .
That morning it was my wife‘s turn to get the tea. When she came up with it, and with the morning paper – she usually sneaks a quick look at it while she‘s making the tea – I said,
‘Any news of iron striking a snake ?‘
‘Don‘t be cryptic, darling. It‘s just the usual doom and gloom !‘
And it was, except, for one item. One small item which. it would seem, barely rated a headline – a special report from their scientific correspondent on a small meteorite which had apparently come down in Derbyshire the previous evening. It had rather alarmed a couple of passing motorists although, according to the experts, it was a relatively small example of its kind.
But the detail which rivetted my attention was the spot where it had fallen. A few yards from the road over the Snake Pass. The iron from heaven had struck the snake. And if you know your Derbyshire, you‘ll know that spot as ‘a lonely place‘, and one which is invariably referred to locally as ‘The Snake‘.
I was beginning to feel more than a little involved, and it wasn‘t a feeling I much cared for. On a sudden impulse I packed the tape into a box and set off to see an electronics friend of mine. On second thoughts I took the tape recorder as well. When he‘d checked the machine over, and pronounced it in good working order, I said,
‘Look, I‘ve got to get some cigarettes. Would you mind checking this tape over while I‘m gone ? It seems a bit – off, you know.‘
He looked at me a little strangely when I finally got back.
‘Well, you live and learn, Bill ! I‘d never have suspected you of modesty. Did you really have to make such a fragile excuse to get me to listen to one of your stories ?‘
So he hadn‘t heard the voice either . . .
I don‘t remember much about the drive home. I arrived there to find a rather agitated wife awaiting me.
‘Oh, thank goodness you‘ve come at last ! Daddy just rang up, Mummy‘s not well. Can you manage without me for a day or two ? I‘ll take Jonny, of course !‘
Oddly enough, I felt somewhat reluctant to let them go. It was the sort of day when you feel happier at home with your own about you. Torrential rain, sudden wild gusts of wind, a day for the fireside.
When I‘d dropped them at the station, I turned down the idea of a drink at the local and decided to go back to the warmth and comfort of the house again. It was a vile night. The rain was coming down like stair-rods and showed no sign of stopping. As I crossed the town bridge I noticed the height of the river. Much more of this kind of weather and it would be over the banks.
I went up to my room, plugged in the tape-recorder, and set it to ‘Playback‘. Then I sat very still and listened to – the entire recording of my story. It was an enormous relief. Whatever it was, it seemed that it was all over. I could get on with the recording of the rewrite with a quiet mind.
Actually, it went rather well. When I‘d finished the recording I rewound the reel and switched to ‘Playback‘. I had a momentary qualm as I set the thing in motion, but it was all right. The sound of my own voice was enormously comforting. I sat back, curiously shaken.
Then it happened. What sound-engineers call a ‘cross-fade‘. My own voice grew fainter as a new voice, distant but clear, replaced it, growing louder with every moment, until the room seemed to be filled with the voice of the child, drowning out the noise of the rain lashing against the window.
Beware, beware the Ides of March,
The constant-falling rain,
The river rising hour by hour
The flood that sweeps the plain.
Oh, hold me ! Hold me ! Hold my hand !
Before I sink again !
This time I didn‘t even try to write it down. The words will be with me as long as I live.
I looked at the calendar over my desk. The fifteenth. The Ides of March. So, whatever it was, it was to be today. And when the telephone rang I said to myself, this is it. Somehow I knew before I picked up the receiver that whoever was on the line it had to do with that voice.
But I hadn‘t bargained for the vicar. That was a shaker.
‘Hello ! That you, Bill ? Thank heaven, just the man I want ! Look, can you get down here right away ? We need help ! The river‘s over the banks and the lower end of the town‘s under water ! And it‘s rising fast !‘
‘Righto, padre ! I‘ll be with you in a few minutes !‘
I remember saying to myself over and over again as I backed the car out of the garage, ‘Hang on, boy ! Hang on ! I‘m on my way !‘
Even then I had no idea, of course, who he was nor what he looked like. But I knew where he must be, and I knew that he needed me.
And, when all‘s said and done, that‘s all that matters . . .