from Snowdome
by Bernard Cohen

 
 

Tinnitus is the spirit of the age. William comes home, flicks the radio on, turns it up. His head is full of noise. He likes it that way. He thinks he does. Someone in another room calls out. A greeting? A demand for quiet? William answers: 'Hi!'

No answer.

They live in Sydney, a mumbling city. William cannot hear what anyone else says, and so far as he knows, they cannot hear him. Their conversations are like this: 'Hey, look at that woman's clothes.'

'Look at what?'

'That woman's clothes.'

'Clothes?'

'Yeah.'

'Oh. Yeah.'

The city is an endless conversation with itself, constantly self-asserting. They cannot talk over it. Whatever they say adds to the noise. The noise level never diminishes: if some sounds stop for a while, others fill in the gaps. William hears unrecognisable sounds, deep, echoing, causeless noises, creaks and groans as if the city were metamorphosing beneath the ground, melding with the rocks. William pictures the roots of the city in equilibrium with reservoirs of magma.

The noise: if everyone in Sydney spoke simultaneously the city would become louder and louder until the buildings shook and the streets cracked apart. The city would collapse. Pop. They tell each other they're going deaf: 'Loud music, traffic, industrial machinery.'

Inside, they assemble narratives from accumulations of strange events.

'Black marks on the carpet; fast-moving lights in the night sky; the pyramids of ancient Egypt; God.'

Sydney is beautiful, a place people look at and think, 'What's that advertising?' then realise it's advertising everything. It is a television city -- was it designed for TV? -- with a big harbour, full of sailboats and ferries and cargo ships, all with little people waving and pointing towards the shore. To William, some people are larger than some boats, so it's the people they watch. They sit down by the harbour and watch the people. They point at the people on the boats, and the people wave back.

In the afternoon the water is bright and everyone squints. William stretches an arm out in front, hold his thumb and forefinger parallel, and peers between. In this manner, William measures the city. Most of the buildings are as shiny as the water, but all different colours. They have to squint to look at the buildings too. At sunset, the city lights come on and reflections jump about on the surface of the water. They can't see the people any more, but imagining the people still out there, they wave anyway.

When they're tired of the city, they go home and watch television. They stare at the city for a while, then run up the stairs and switch on the television: it's like changing channels. If there's nothing good on, sometimes they make up their own shows, practising voices, gesturing absurdly, doing local characters. Otherwise, there's always the radio.

Once during a radio news program the reporter said: 'This new policy of firing rockets from light aircraft into densely populated civilian areas has aroused widespread protest.' William's friends said 'Whoa' and 'Fucking hell', which they often say watching or listening to the news. Another time, the news reported a big warehouse fire. When they looked out the window they could see its flames on the other side of the railway lines, only two blocks away. They looked from the TV to the window and to the TV again. They saw the whole side of the building collapse.

Another time, just down the road, there were all these police standing around, looking in different directions. William and his friends saw somebody lying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Police and ambulance lights were flashing, but there were no sirens. It was quiet. A police officer told them to keep moving. On the footpath beside the road, one of them found a wallet which may have belonged to the killer or the victim. So they said it had, took it home, and put it on the coffee table next to a New Zealand passport they had found behind the couch. They much prefer that sort of thing to glossy books of North American birds and Paris in Autumn. It's real life.

They talk about that too: 'You know, if the US, Russia and China laid all their nuclear weapons end to end, they'd form a bridge long enough to walk from Alaska to Vladivostok.'

'Not advised, eh?'

Or: 'You know what I read somewhere? "Fast growing moulds are responsible for many previously unexplained phenomena."'

'Where'd you read that.'

'Some journal.'

'"Phenomena"?'

Sydney is a city of fanatics: suit-people, God-people, film-people, train-people, food-people, bird-people, shop-people. The people in William's house wake in the late morning and walk. They walk into the city, walk down to the harbour, walk around the wharves, dodge between the traffic, climb the fences, pick their way over the railway lines, find things, carry them home.

Sydney is a city of the future, like the covers on old comic books, the metal towers vignetted against the night sky. Shows about the computer age only talk about robots and amusement park transport: things that resemble movie special effects. Bullshit, thinks William. Sydney is much stronger and more resilient than that. Here, bodies lie slumped over steering wheels. William's friends know you have to walk right around the wreck to understand the force of the city.

On the bridge over the railway station late one night, they saw a young man punching a truck, punching it over and over. There was no sound, just his fist hitting metal. They walked past, saying nothing and the man didn't look up. No one else was in the street.

Afterwards, they talked about it: 'Him hitting that truck.'

They weren't surprised, though. (They talked about that too.) William stared at the television, watching some late movie, feeling slightly nauseous.

In the silences, sometimes William imagines the future as silent. Under gravity, the city's momentum will falter. The whirring will slowly reveal itself as a rapid, then less rapid series of clicks, ever further from the click previous. That this has not happened already defies all logic.