Martin Edmond

Cold Calling

i.m. Laura Nyro

a telephone call from the land of the dead
My mother calls up on the telephone to talk about my sister. As she begins to speak, the vague annoyance I always feel when she initiates conversations like these surfaces. But you’re dead, I say. You’re dead. I know I’m being brutal. Am I? she wonders in that guileless way she has. I don’t think so. I’m in Perth. Later the place where she is shifts further west but I no longer know where. Colombo? Vishakapatnum? It is anyway a zone of whispering cacophony, of dusty voices: my sister, certainly, is there; perhaps my father too. And myriad others. I can hear the hiss of their voices down the line like a vast field of leaves shifting in a black wind.

how to make phone calls from the land of the dead
First of all—not as obvious as it sounds—there must be someone among the living who might want to talk to you. There are many, indeed most, who refuse to acknowledge the existence of the dead at all, let alone talk to us. Second, a Nokia will not do; nor a Samsung or a Motorola, a Sony or an LG ... what you need is blood. Blood is the medium, blood is the wire, blood the handpiece and blood the service provider. This knowledge is old as Odysseus, older in fact, but it's still news to some. And blood is not easy to come by; you can't get some if you ain't got none which, for those who are paying attention, takes us back to the first point. Someone has to want to talk, someone has to share your blood or give a little of their own; if these two conditions are fulfilled, there's only one more: you have to get them when they're sleeping or when the barriers are otherwise down. Drunk is good; destroyed by grief; in love; or any kind of extremis of fear, rage, doubt or pain. Guess there's one other thing I haven't said but most of us here don't need this to be pointed out: you also have to have something to say. Not a complex thought to grasp: scaring the hell out of the living, though brute in its simplicity, is quite enough to make the connection worthwhile for some. Others among us are more ambitious: we want to be remembered, we want to be missed, we want to be loved. Some of us even hope to put those poor bewildered souls to rights. To show them, arrogant as it sounds, how to live.

in the evening
/ In the evening / baby when the sun goes down ... the darkness in this flat thickens and, getting up from the desk and walking out into the hallway on my way to the sitting room, presences gather ... charcoal and mystery ... and I don't know if I see what I'm seeing or if what I see is real. Ghosts of former occupants (how many? how far away? where?) assemble and I have to take off my reading glasses to see if they are really there. That grainy greyscale doesn't change and then I think maybe it has nothing to do with my near sight (bad) or my far sight (good) but is about second sight, da shealladh, which really means two sights. It must be an awareness of the manifold shades that surround us always with their lack of insistence, their modesty about existence or the absence thereof, their quiet endurance of the very long time of the dead. I am not afraid, not even afraid of being afraid, I would like them to come closer, to commune more intimately, I don't want to think of them forgotten, limbo-ed, if that's a word, reduced to a disturbance in the charcoal half-light moments before I turn on the light in the hallway, look for the TV guide, wonder about dinner, check my mobile (new, stylish, French, recalcitrant), pick up the phone to call someone ... as if there isn't time for sadness any more, as if that hour when ghosts gather for the brief benediction we, the living, can give them has been elided in a rigmarole of days that go by swimmingly but with an undertow, an undersong of loss that we might think belongs to the dead but is really, heartbreakingly, ours.

questions 67 & 68
The land of the dead both is and is not like a prison: we don't have to queue for the phone and we carry our cells with us at all times. It is more about whether the person we want to speak to will be there when we call. And so assuage our longing. The whispering multitudes we are with cannot do this—companionable, yes, but not warm in the way the living are warm. A beautifully mysterious thing. Warmth is what we long for because it is cold way down here, yes, it's cold way down here. We are haunted by songs that we cannot sing, cannot hear, not even in memory, unless we make that connection and feel one of those fugitive melodies flood through. Those cold wires, those wireless wires, that blood radio ... please pick up the phone. We have nothing to offer but our yearning and, importunate beyond measure, don’t you? Have anything to offer? To us? Questions 67 and 68. There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on.

the wrong song
My mother calls again. I can hardly hear her. The susurrus of the voices of the dead so loud, a rustling, a thickening, a papery confusion that reminds me of walking through drifts of leaves outside the gasworks in Freemans Bay, years ago now, wading into them with my forgotten shoes so as to still the sound of my own yearning … It’s the wrong song, she is saying. And the wrong sister too, it’s my sister not yours … I want to talk about Lindsay … are you listening?! That parental admonition coming all the way from Antananarivo arrests me. Yes, I say, yes, I’m listening. Suddenly the line goes quiet. Quiet as planets setting. Quiet as Kuiper Belt Objects searching for the name of the goddess they will be called after. Haumea, I hear. We are further away than that, my mother says. We are so far that you cannot imagine. Cannot conceive. I feel a bad joke rising but I suppress it. Yes? I say again, dutiful as a twelve-year-old boy. Blood Sweat & Tears, she says or so I believe. Not Chicago. You’ve got the wrong song. And in that instant, as the music of the spheres whispers through once more, I know she is right—it is the wrong song. The one she wants me to remember is the one I had that terrible argument about with Lindsay, her sister, my aunt, one day in ’67 or ’68 when I was a teenager full of hormones and bullshit. Or ’69. Sing to me, she says, and my heart breaks again. My breath is wind, my mind is a cloud, my soul an unreachable sky. Crack-voiced, I sing: I'm not scared of dying / And I don't really care / If it's peace you find in dying / Well then let the time be near … I hear her sigh. There’s a pause. I’m hanging on for dear life. We’ve never talked like this before. Then the connection cuts out. There’s just me and the enormous static of the universe. I can’t hang up, I have to wait. I wait. And then, like one of those revenant melodies that hiss and crackle out of a short-wave radio in a piece by Stockhausen, another snatch of song arrives: Give me my freedom for as long as I be / All I ask of living is to have no chains on me / And all I ask of dying is to go naturally. I only want to go naturally, I think but do not say. Go naturally.

why she called
At my mother’s funeral Lindsay stood up before the assembly of several hundred people and said that she could not accept her older sister’s death. And that she never would. It was an extraordinary thing for a 74 year old woman to say. Nobody knew what she meant. Or perhaps we did. The burden of grief so great it must be denied. Later, outside the church, at the closing of the hearse, just as the shiny black door came down over the flower-laden coffin, our eyes met. She looked away. It was as if the argument—it was about acceptance, or not, of mortality—we had in ’69 or ’70 never ended. I think my mother might be calling from the land of the dead for Lindsay’s sake. I think she’s probably telling me to go and see her before it’s too late. She doesn’t want her to die uneasy. The song the dead can’t sing, the one that haunts their insubstantiality, could be that very one I fought over with my aunt nearly forty years ago: My troubles are many, they're as deep as a well / I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell / I can swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell / But I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell. I think she still lives in Opotiki. Or Tauranga. I’d better go. Soon.

Earlier versions of some of these pieces by Martin Edmond were posted to the taking the brim_took the broom blog.

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