Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Only perfection is permissible – a short story

"Come in, Mrs Simpson. Sit down. You remember me, I imagine, Mr Michaels."

She pulled out the chair and sat down. The office chair was set for someone much taller, and fatter, and there were an awkward few moments as she struggled to find the lever to adjust it.

"Thanks for coming in," Michaels said.

"Thanks for having me," she said, with a little rasp. He looked up suddenly from his papers, eyed her for a second, nodded and looked back down.

She looked round at the items on the table in front ofher: a blank pad of paper, a glass and jug of water, a set of headphones and a black wire that rose out of a hole in the table and ended in the centre of the table with a chunky adapter on the end. She poured a glass of water, trying in all her arm not to spill any. A little water flicked off the lip of the jug on to the table. She clasped the glass snugly and sipped it. That would get rid of the rasp.

"As you know, this is a very prestigious job, Mrs Simpson."

Mrs Simpson looked up from her glass at that. "Oh yes," she said quickly.

"However, with prestige comes requirements. Precision. Consistency."

She didn't say anything. She wanted him to think that she knew that already, which she did, sort of, and saying something would imply that she hadn't, which she hadn't, sort of. So saying nothing seemed the safest option.

The door opened and a young man entered, wearing a laboratory white coat, with plain trousers and even plainer shoes. He was carrying a wooden box, the size of a ream of A4 paper. He placed it carefully, steadily on the table, and withdrew his hands with a courtier's grace.

"You remember Raymond."

Raymond went over to a draw and produced a table-mount, a two plastic rings caged by a constellation of elastic that looked on the one hand like a crown and its reflection, and on the other, to Mrs Simpson, as Raymond placed it on the table, like a huge spider.

Then his hands returned to the box, he flicked open the latch, and his thumbs gently prised the lid up. The lid was hinged, and she caught a glimpse of the velvet lining as it lifted. The hush in the room became pronounced. Inside, the microphone gleamed like a rare jewel.

There was a moment then, when they were all sat there, staring at the box, when she felt that it was as if she was about to undergo heart replacement surgery, and that the microphone was her new heart, beating in its box, waiting to be fitted.

Raymond looked at Michaels for approval, and after a moment he gave it.

The microphone was brought out. It took two hands for Raymond to lift, and he cradled it in both palms, only moving it on to his fingers when it was ready to place on the stand. Then he lowered his hands with infinitesimal care, until the mic rested in its breeches, enthroned, and from its vantage began to glare down on Mrs Simpson, the iridescent maker's logo shining a imperial purple. Raymond connected the wire to the bottom of the microphone.

Do I kneel? she wondered. The thought was ridiculous, but yet, she thought, not impossible. The mic's bearing had a warrior's countenance, she thought, like a royal created not by blood, by birth, but by way of blood, by battle. She almost didn’t want to look at it. Raymond departed, a last short glance at the glimmer of the microphone. Then they were alone, Mrs Simpson, Michaels and the microphone.

Everything must go into there, she thought. Or perhaps she heard. It was a thought, but perhaps she heard the thought, rather than thinking it. Then it continued, in an ambiguous gully between thought and sound: Your entire being must go in there; into there, you must direct it all. She stared at the mesh crown of the microphone's head. Into there? she thought. Yes, into there.

She looked at Michaels, who was looking at her, watching her. And she watched him, but his lips didn’t moved, nor his eyes.

Direct it all, and by all, it must be all.

"So," Michaels said, cutting off the thought as though he couldn't hear it. "We must begin."

She tried a smile, but it was short, as if it couldn't escape the brow of her teeth. She sipped her water.

"Mrs Simpson," said Michaels, "you have been selected for this job because you are capable. You are the person who we believe can best accomplish our task. However, that does not mean you will accomplish it. It does not mean that you are incapable of failure. On the contrary," he said, his mouth punching out the words, "you will have to summon considerable powers to achieve this. Considerable powers. Nevertheless, we are all – myself, Raymond and Neumann – assured that you are capable, and we have the fullest faith in you."

She thought back to her interview in this same building, six weeks previously. Michaels and Raymond had both been there. She couldn't remember a Neumann.

The microphone stared out from its desk keep, and she thought suddenly of watching Lord of the Rings with her two boys, at home on Christmas day, the eye of Sauron staring back at them from the telly.

"I don't mean to make you anxious," Michaels said, the jump from silence to speaking making her exactly that. "However, you must understand that this is a precision industry. We are in the precision business. Only perfection is permissible. Perhaps," and here Michaels permitted himself a wave of the head, as if he was deviating slightly from a strict script, "you believe that perfection is impossible. And you would be right. Nevertheless, only perfection is permissible."

"OK," she said, sipping her water again. She wanted to say that this was all fine, that perfection being permissible was her everyday outlook; that she had done many jobs with that as a requirement, and it was nothing special. But she said nothing, glanced at the microphone and looked away.

"You must enunciate, of course, you must speak perfectly clearly, but more than that you must achieve an absence of personality, Mrs Simpson, a nothingness in which your perfect diction becomes the totality of existence. There must be no hint of history. No quirks of fate or hidden hands. All must be as it was in the advent of creation, and as it shall be at the final hurdle to armageddon."

Saying anything seemed beyond the point now, so she didn't say anything, and didn't even nod, but stared evenly at Michael, and then at the microphone, and then she took a sip of water, and then she looked away.

"Please remember, Mrs Simpson, when you speak, that you are speaking, in a theoretical possibility at least, to every man, woman and child on the planet. At some point, over the next 20 years, barring a planetary catastrophe, these words we are going to record are going to be heard by more people than had lived and died on the Earth for most of history. Your words will be heard by millions day in, day out, 364 days a year. No pop band, Mrs Simpson, will be heard by so many as you. No great politician's speech, or football commentator's peal. Your voice, Mrs Simpson, will conduct the great swathe of humanity through its wretched span, as polite, stern and familiar as each person's mother. Over and over again, your every nuance will be replayed. So there must be no nuance. There must be absolute equality in timbre, tone and pronunciation. There must be, Mrs Simpson, simply perfection."

"I understand," Mrs Simpson said, a little loudly, attempting to embody absolute equality in timbre, tone and pronunciation, but all she saw was the muscles in Michaels' face tighten momentarily, and then relax.

He took a small key and unlocked a drawer on his desk, and from it produced a thick file of papers. "Your script," he said, handing it over, with his right hand, far to the side of the imperious microphone.

She took it with her left, and placed it on the table as far from the mic as she could. She opened the file and read the first page. It was a list of places. Some of them she recognised – London landmarks like Tottenham Court Road, Drury Lane, The Old Vic – some she had never heard of – Spa Road, Anchor Street, Warndon Street.

"Now, if you would put your headphones on, we shall get a recording level."

She placed the huge headphones around her head, the clammy rubber clamping to her ears. From inside the headphones she could hear the room, the same room she had been sitting in, but drawn through the one mic, with its one ear, which made no distinction between the sound of her voice, the sound of her breath, the wheezing of Michaels’ chair, or the sound of dust settling on the desk.

"OK. Raymond," said Michaels, his voice booming in her ears. "We are ready to record." There was a short silence, and then Raymond's voice cut in. "Recording."

"To begin with," said Michael, putting on his pair of headphones, "could you tell me your name."

"Mrs Janet Simpson."

"And your place of birth?"

"London. University College Hospital."

"Is that OK, Raymond?"

"Good for levels."

"Everything OK?" said Michael. "Yes," came a faint reply. Not hers, and not Raymond's. Must be the mysterious Neumann, she thought.

"Mrs Simpson," said Michael. "Could you try reading the line at the top of the page."

She read it. "Number one," she said. "To."

"Stop there, thank you." There was a pause, as if Michaels was waiting for some kind of sign. But if there was one, she didn't see it. "Again, please," he said.

"Number one," she said. "To."

Michaels let out a faint sigh. It came from his nose, and was so faint that if it wasn't for the precision-engineered microphone clasping all sounds from the room with equal pull she would probably never have heard it.

"Again, please. Remember: be nothing."

The thought started up in her head: stare into the mic, it said. Just stare into the microphone. Let everything you give go into there. Your whole being. Your entirety. Let it go only there.

"Number one," she said. "To." And Michaels nodded, and sat back in his chair slightly.

"Now the list," he said. "From the top, one at a time."

"Tottenham Court Road," Mrs Simpson read. Michaels drew a breath, and looked at her. “Mrs Simpson, please. This is not a discotheque.”

Whatever can he mean, she wondered. Best not to listen to him too much, with his bizarre advice. The thought came to her: Read the name and then speak it, she thought. Yes, that's right, she thought. Read the name first, and then speak it. Don't read it and speak it together. She looked down the list, and then she turned her gaze to the mic, and stared into it.

"Tottenham Court Road," she said. "Drury Lane." Michaels gave a faint nod.

"Holburn Station," she read. "Aldwych / Kingsway."

"Stop," said Michael. "No, no, no.” There was a pause and she looked up at him for guidance. “It’s not you speaking, Mrs Simpson. Stop speaking. It’s not you who’s speaking." His grim face nodded towards the mic. She looked at it again.


“No!” Michaels nearly rose out of his seat. “No! Mrs Simpson, come on! You can’t fail Neumann like this!” And then he paused, and his body briefly clenched, as he was forcing himself to calm down. “Mrs Simpson, the bus passengers of London need you. Please. Try again.”

Wow, she thought. He’s a crazy one. Best to just look at the microphone. That was safest. And she stared at it, into the eye of the microphone, into the mesh cage, she stared so hard that she felt herself drawn in, felt herself move inside the cage, as if she wouldn't even need to speak, that the microphone could record her from within, as if they were one and the same.

"Lancaster Place."

Michaels relaxed in the chair, and the leather exhaled beneath him.

"Waterloo Bridge / South Bank."

"Waterloo Station / Tenison Way."

"The Old Vic."