In the afternoons, when the world became silent, Gilbert rose from his sitting place at the veranda, opened the kitchen window a crack, hid the entrance key under a small mat on the sill in case Scott visited, and climbed carefully the stairs to the attic of his old house. The door protested; it creaked, then it opened, opened, opened and he stood on the threshold for several moments, from behind the thick lenses of his glasses his eyes searching for the shapes that sat around the room. He performed this ritual every day, yet he never grew tired of it.
On the afternoon of his death, Gilbert waited longer than usual. It was the 1st of November, All Hallows Day; Scott always visited him after mass. He didn’t come. Instead, a storm appeared. The sky was hitting hard upon the faded-red tiles of the roof when Gilbert paused before the attic, wondering whether he could catch sound of the rain. He couldn’t.
He walked inside on aquiver feet, feeling that he was entering a sensation rather than a room, and made his way across in the dark, passing his hands over these ancient friends of his, petting their surfaces with unhurried fingers, until he reached the other side and switched on the flamingo-shaped lamp. The light, tentatively protruding from the bird’s beak, travelled across the space and magnified upon touching the mirrors on the walls. Gilbert’s eyes magnified too, at the view of the radios.
He had never cared to count them, but he owned more than eighty, all gathered around in a great circle, like ghosts of cross-legged wise Indian chiefs upon congregation. Apart from the radios, and the maple rocking chair like a forlorn stranger in the middle, nothing else was in the room. Gilbert sent his sight to each one of them, with the look one has when leafing through old photograph albums, gaze not actually perceiving what lies before it but rather cast somewhere else, revisiting this or the other past.
Next to the flamingo stood the small Setchell-Carlson 407 with the pink-coated speaker, its dial of gold encompassing a delicate pointer. At its side loomed the husky Grunow 755, resembling a wardrobe; a blue eye hung high up on its front. It stared opposite, at the Superette R7A and its angel-form façade over three silver-inlaid buttons. Four radios further along stood out proudly despite its runty size the Sentinel 125A, its elegant half-cylindrical speaker in contrast with its bulky neighbour, the pensive Wurlitzer Lyric on its stout legs, boasting a burnished surface. From one side of the room, from the Weston 30, which looked much like an accordion due to its distinct parts –brown, black, brown– Gilbert ambled a few steps at a time and turned on his radios, all the way to the other side and back again, to the Emerson 247 ‘Snow White’ edition, with its fine engravings of the seven dwarves and the girl embracing the hours on its bronze clock dial. Then he sank into the rocking chair and closed his eyes.
His mind sauntering into a state of delirium, he remained there until time lost even what little meaning it possessed. The radios were at full volume, tuned to classical music stations, many transmitting the same programme from different places in the attic. Gilbert rested his hands on the arms of the rocking chair – his, rough; its, carved, so they matched – he lifted his legs up, and fell back into the tapestry of sounds and voices that filled the room.
At first, his ears picked up fragments of Mozart’s Haffner Serenade coming from the Corona 209 to his right, or a man’s voice announcing Handel’s Agrippina from the smooth-lined cabinet of the Sparton 1271 behind him. Soon, however, he lost control of his concentration as all the voices, the melodies, all the music mingled into a singular stream of sound, thriving louder and closer, closer and louder, and Gilbert let his conscience dive into this drone, a torrent which was different every time and yet the same. In the end, he lost himself in the turmoil.
It was in the turmoil that his son found him. Scott could hear it from outside, as soon as he stepped out of the car. A monster hollered in the attic, the Lernaean Hydra of a hundred wooden singing heads. Gilbert remained seated when Scott rushed inside, key in palm, alarmed by the commotion of sounds, and started turning off, one by one, his antique radios. Gilbert didn’t look up, not even when the last of them was quiet and silence had entered the room, transforming it into a mute chamber crowded with oblique, straight and sloping silhouettes. He didn’t respond to his son’s voice, nor move when Scott placed his hands on his shoulders, shaking him, back and forth, many times.
Scott’s tall, rather lanky figure stood indecisive in front of the chair that contained his father. A frightened expression found its way on his features as he uttered Gilbert’s name and received no answer. A moment stretched between the two men. Then Scott regained his familiar, confident posture of the pastor. He searched for a pulse on his father’s wrist and chest, his own reflection from the mirrors looking back at him, attending his movements. They seemed calm, dictated by a sense of purpose, as when he performed his sermons. Scott couldn’t find the pulse.
He had no idea how long his father had been in this state, or what he meant by having all the radios turned on at once. He didn’t know whether he should call the police or an ambulance, and tell them Gilbert had a heart failure. What he knew was that he wasn’t prepared to spend slow hours in the house with his father sitting quietly in the attic, waiting to be collected. In the end, he decided.
Bending forward, Scott mastered his strength to heave his father’s weight on his back. He expected the task to be difficult, since Gilbert was a tall man. On impulse he thought of himself as a Christ carrying his cross. He was wrong. As the other body bounced on his shoulders, from his mind passed unwillingly the picture of a bull hefting the body of a matador. His father was frail, his bones light, and Scott experienced a feeling of guilt as he carried downstairs the man whom he rarely spoke to and saw any more.
With care, he settled him in the passenger’s seat. Lowering to secure the seatbelt, his nose picked up the scent that always lingered around his father and which Scott had associated with the time when he was young; an ancient cologne, of those that no one wore any more. He walked around the car to the other door, in awkwardness staring at his father, seated as he was behind the front window, there and not there, his head down, hanging, and then Scott was inside too, the door echoed a thud, and he started driving the hundred-and-seventy or so miles to St. Mary’s Hospital. Soon after he entered the sparsely illuminated highway, he risked a sideways glance.
The lineaments he had known so well on his father’s face revealed little of what had happened, highlighted now and then by the occasional light. Gilbert’s expression, which Scott remembered growing more bitter and reserved in the last years, had left. There lay something else instead, an air of what appeared like contentment, though remote and unfamiliar. Scott hadn’t seen his 82 year old father allow anything close to that to show for nearly four decades, not since the day his wife had passed away.
Clementine suffered from heart condition. The attack had come on a wintry afternoon like any other. Her husband thereafter bereft of happiness, and her 10-year-old son apprehending the temporariness of parental figures, had abided with it in different manners. Scott had come, in time, to rest in acceptance, understanding that God operated in His own inconspicuous ways; however, always with a purpose. For Gilbert this purpose never existed. The loss of Clementine had formed a barren ground inside him, which spread with time, occupied him, and left no space for else. It was from then that Scott’s relationship with his father was severed, a chasm opening up, as if Clementine had been the only tie between them; from then Scott had turned to God for answers, and Gilbert had started on the path of the recluse he would become. From then had originated the madness with the radios.
In a trance of consciousness, Scott drove on and on as the evening grew, his father silent next to him, his own self present at times and removed the following instant, as though he weren’t in the car at all, as though he was outside, watching it from above as it smoothed along the asphalt.
His thoughts were invaded by the presence of a sulky doctor in white, who used only as many words as he needed to convey his purpose. Before leaving, he handed Scott a small plastic bag; his father’s possessions, now rightfully his. Scott didn’t spare a second look as he put it in his pocket, the gleam of his father’s mechanical watch shimmering momentarily under the cold fluorescent lights of the waiting room.
Outside, before the view of the shaded skyline, Scott determined to drive back. He’d spend the night at his parents’ house. It was home, even though he didn’t live there anymore. He had moved out years ago, to the apartment in the city, closer to the church he was appointed to. As the shapes of other cars passed around him on the highway, swift and hazy like phantoms from another world, he glimpsed at the empty seat beside him, and wondered, and remembered how it had all started, this obsession of his father with the radios.
Soon after Clementine passed away, and under his son’s confused eye, Gilbert had started to buy every antique radio he could lay his hands on. He bid in auctions, scanned the newspapers for selling advertisements, subscribed to magazines for passionate collectors and had even learned to use the internet for the single purpose of ordering pieces from the other side of the globe. Carriers arrived at the house every now and then, unloading with effort the heavy packages, which had to be carefully carried to the attic, opened and their contents reassembled to a unitary form.
Gilbert had pored for endless hours over connoisseurs’ books, instructions manuals and even addressed questions to rare online forums for enthusiasts and specialists on vintage radios. He had learned perhaps all that was to be learned about Mylar and Electrolytic capacitors, connectors and resistors, rubber parts, transformers, wire cords and control shafts. He knew where to find reproduction batteries, decals, shock mounts, chassis, reels and tube shields. Over time he had become an expert; he knew how to preserve his radios, how to faux paint the patterns on their cabinets, when to substitute their parts, how to restore them to life.
Scott had remained in questioning distance as his father’s infatuation developed. The reason behind it he knew, although he didn’t quite understand it. And this very reason stood in the attic all these years, now almost invisible at first glance between two hefty Airline models which formed a cumbersome gate on one side of the room.
Turning off the engine, Scott noticed how the world around him fell quiet. Distant sounds came from the highway, murmurs hinting that people still existed further away, drove cars, travelled. His steps echoed on the wooden landing as he entered. The house was empty, a stark absence of life. It always seemed so, but then it seemed even more.
He climbed the stairs to the attic. He crossed the room and switched on the lamp, waiting for his eyes to become accustomed to the light. Then he looked around and found it.
It was an old Truetone; of discreet size and rectangle shape. Its base and ceiling were painted in a pleasant argent-black tone; the rest was warm mahogany apart from the façade, which featured an umber-coloured cedar with soft grain like rivulets. Three black knobs circumscribed the unique pattern of its speaker, that of an elongated heart. From its centre, seven tear-shaped drops spread downwards in symmetrical distances, the middle one wider, the outer ones almost as thin as feathers. On top of the heart was a minuscule oval spot; an eye without iris or a white pebble, crowning the pattern. It was the only radio in his father’s collection whose model was unknown. The part on its back where the number and date of manufacture should have been carved in small characters was scraped away.
Scott approached and picked it up. Smooth and warm, it felt slightly heavy, but it was a pleasant weight on his arms, as if he was holding a baby. Turning it around, he looked for the inscription at its bottom. Leaning closer, his reflection in the mirror moved too, like a fiend, and startled him. The radio almost fell from his hands. He looked again at the initials carved on the wood. ‘C.F.’ He placed it back, careful to cover the rectangular shape in the dust.
Clementine Flowe – his mother. Scott recalled when Gilbert bought the Truetone from an antique shop, a present for her birthday. She had been an amateur musician and singer, and often played the works of classical composers on the piano in the living room, singing along sometimes. She even had a lute, Scott remembered, a corpulent coffee-coloured lute she liked to play. Gilbert had thought she might enjoy listening to her favourite music originating from a venerable-aged speaker, and he had proved correct. Clementine had relished the Truetone and taken to leave it on all the time, until it broke down. Shortly afterwards, she had died.
Scott believed that his father, out of guilt that he hadn’t managed to repair it in time, had set out researching on antique radios, buying first one or two to experiment with, before trying his hand on the precious Truetone. Soon he had developed a passion which would keep him company for years, especially after his son moved out; a hobby of classical music coming from ancient speakers for the solitary hours of the afternoons. But something else confused Scott. The Truetone; Gilbert had never repaired it.
Scott knew. He had noticed it was always silent, the only silent radio in the room. Assuming his father missed some rare necessary part to revive it, he had originally expected to find it singing any day. Years had passed and the Truetone remained mute. Scott had managed to bring it up only once, for Gilbert to reply that he had indeed repaired the Truetone, offering no further explanation. And yet it was silent as always.
Pacing around the attic, sparing glances at the radios as if they could provide him with answers, Scott wondered. He didn’t question his father’s ability to revive the old radio. But why hadn’t he? Why lie? That was the way his father was; as he didn’t hand him the keys to the house when Scott left, he had held his love for Clementine a private business, not to be shared even with his son. Since her death, there had been the single fight between them when Clementine was mentioned in association with the radios; Scott had suggested his father spent too much time with them, that it was unhealthy. Gilbert had flown into a rage, insisting that the radios helped him bring her back, but Scott could see that he had never let her go, and that the obsession was getting a peculiar hold on him, filling him with bitterness. After that, neither of them had brought up the subject again. Without words they had agreed to remember Clementine each in his own way. Yet Scott still wondered about the Truetone. It was one of the things they left unspoken, belonging to the realm of questions one addresses to himself, feeling for the answers in the dark, touching their shadows.
The rocking chair, Scott observed, was always, even now, turned towards it, as if the Truetone constituted the nucleus of the room. However, it had been the only one not contributing to the earlier pandemonium. What had happened before his coming, why all the radios were on simultaneously, was a mystery to him. Of course they were at full volume, since his father’s hearing had started fading away. But all at once? It couldn’t have been an accident. Gilbert spent a lot of time in the attic with his radios, but never before had Scott found him in such a state.
Slowly, as if an invisible force was dictating his movements, Scott walked around the room and started switching them on. The Astra 102U, the Jewel 300, the Detrola 139, the Aetna 251, the Luxor 94W, the Mende 198GW, the Simplex, Skyrover, Hallicrafters, Federal, Cheney, Day-Fan, the two Airlines, models and numbers passed before him, remains of eras other than his own, their identities carved on their exterior designs, the Art Deco and Bakelite of the 30s, the ‘modern’ 40s, the ‘high tech’ 70s. He left the Truetone for the end. Looking at its knobs, he realised that it was turned at full volume too. Strange. Still, he could discern no sound coming from it, and the other knobs didn’t appear to be working.
He strode around, attempting to assuage the feeling of distress which enveloped him. As he passed by each of the radios, he recognised parts of all sorts of melodies he had grown up with, that his parents used to listen to, play and enjoy. Bach’s cantatas, Haydn’s violin concertos, Schumann’s symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s piano solos, Shostakovich, Salieri, Liszt, Chopin, Granados, Berlioz, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky filled the room. But when he anticipated his step, it was an inextricable mixture of tones, coming from every corner, from all directions towards him. Why had his father turned them on all at once? Had he gone mad in the end? Scott sat on the rocking chair, leaning back uncomfortably; he closed his eyes.
The sounds closed in upon him, an intricate composition without harmony. Bewildered, he knew the room to reverse around him, as if the maple chair was thrashing back and forth. It was alarming, intolerable, a hundred voices thundering up to a tumult of musical anarchy. He swirled in the middle of this monsoon, bombarded from all sides. He looked around, and a thousand eyes ablaze stared back at him. Circles, knobs, speakers formed a pattern of madness. A menacing beak, ignited, undulated among them uncontrollably. All the pointers were turned against him, the room vibrated, any moment they threatened to untangle off their dials and aim for his chest. His mind raced, tried to pick a tune out of the chaos, to discern one clear stream in the disarray of notes. Impossible. He floundered in his seat, senses weltered from the noise. He searched for the Truetone. It stood in front of him, a mirage of calm and serenity amid the frightening cacophony. He tried to get up, he made a clumsy movement, fell back, the rocking chair bounced, rasping the floor, and sent the small plastic bag flying from his pocket.
Dazed, Scott stretched his hand and picked it up, to examine the few possessions it contained. His father’s watch, coins, a minute screwdriver, a folded invoice, and a small knob like a pebble, like an eye. He had never seen it before. Disoriented, he noted that it somehow felt familiar. Turning his gaze upwards, he faced the Truetone; the oval spot over the heart, a hole. In a glimpse of clarity, he knew. His pulse beating hard, he dashed up and started turning off the radios. Hands flying, his thoughts ran before him, before he could catch them solid. Gilbert had repaired the Truetone. Only he had kept the key to its voice to himself.
When the room was silent once more, Scott returned and with unsteady fingers pressed the knob into place. For some seconds the earlier whir recurred in his ears. Then the old radio coughed, and a recording-like echo surfaced. It was of very poor quality and Scott could barely discern a sound. Kneeling in front of it, he noticed the heart on its façade, as if for the first time. How delicate its lines were, how fragile it seemed.
Sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.
That I may cease to mourn
Through thy unkind disdain;
For now left and forlorn
I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die
In deadly pain and endless misery.
The woman’s voice was accompanied by the tender tones of a lute. Scott noticed that his hands were on the radio, stroking its surface.
All the day
That sun that lends me shine
By frowns doth cause me pine
And feeds me with delay:
Her smiles, my springs that make my joys to grow,
Her frowns, the winters of my woe.
There, the answers. Scott knew now what his father had been doing for years. He could see him in his mind, Gilbert turning on all the other radios first, due to his deafness, to switch them off and concentrate to these low, soft notes afterwards. He had repaired the Truetone and he hadn’t. Perhaps it had dawned on him that he didn’t want it to be another old radio like the rest, after all. No, it couldn’t. The Truetone – Gilbert had transformed it into a recorder, the keeper of Clementine’s last remainder: her voice.
All the night
My sleep is full of dreams,
My eyes are full of streams,
My heart takes no delight
To see the fruits and joys that some do find,
And mark the storms to me assigned.
Scott recognised the song. It was Come Again, by Renaissance composer John Dowland. How many times had he heard his mother play the lute and sing it.
He stood in the eye of a melodious hurricane, warm in its tranquillity. Finally, it dawned on him fully what his father had been doing during the long hours he spent in the attic. What sort of voice he was conjuring. For it was a very peculiar voice, he understood, difficult to arrest by ordinary means. To hear it, you had to exclude all others. And when you did, it would tell you all that you wanted to hear. It was harmony. It was memory. His father was not a mere collector of radios after all. For what defined a collector was not the items he gathered, but the emotions they generated for him. One could be a collector of memories. Precious moments stored in sounds.
Scott had solved the silent radio’s secret. As the song played on, lucid drops blurring his sight, he listened and listened. In a Hallowmass of notes, he had discovered the true tone.