Premise: People do not have such a good sense of balance.
The record shop had just been refurbished. Gone were the bulky padded shelves of the 1990s – IN were slick tensile-foam board shelves. TFB shelving had been introduced in most high street shops over 2 years ago to a considerably boisterous reception; groups of youths had taken it upon themselves to flash mob shops and dive at the new shelving to test it out. Against standard falls the material coped well, but in the early months thousands of shelves were permanently warped. Only too late did harsh penalties come into effect against anyone caught joy-falling. But for Open Records there was no sense of hype about the shelves, just a perfunctory facelift for an aging store wanting to get on with the timeless task of selling music.
Dave scratched his stubble. He could feel the coarseness of the now predominantly grey hair pressing in to the chaps on his hands. He had felt at home in the ‘retro’ shop; the 1990s style shelves were always black and their rounded bulkiness gave space a sense of privacy. TFB was usually white – a sign of the times – and made you feel a bit like being in a laboratory.
Dave scanned some of the records in the nearest isle. They were Rock records, mostly bold black and red designs jarring against their new surroundings. Covers for bands like Straight-up High Ball and Loose used live photos; in each the musicians were in balance frames, waist high braces allowing them to ‘rock out’ without falling all the time. Of course in the world of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ it was customary for the frames to be launched into the writhing crowd. Instruments were doctored by bands to allow them to play from the floor. Camera’s would be mounted on overhead lighting tracks to get some floor action shots. Conservatives chided the ‘delinquency’ of Floor Rock, but acclaim was overflowing for cultural forms which were founded upon a sense of poise.
Dave had got bored of Rock when he was a teenager, although he still wore pretty much the same black jeans and printed T-shirt. He had come into Open Records for something he felt was much more subversive. In the 1990s (again) a radio show had been launched on prime-time that played home recordings of people falling, slipping and crashing into things. The ‘ill-conceived documentary’ had been heavily criticised for being base and as one critic put it, ‘being the antithesis of everything that is decent.’ Forthright Radio was axed after just 3 episodes. However, thanks in part to the reactionary nature of the criticism, it wasn’t considered “dangerous” – just offensive – and the production company had released it as a record to try to recoup some of the investment. The criticism was automatic marketing. It had sold slowly since then. Now, typically belated, the padded body of the overweigh entity known as Dave clumped in to view by the “F” section to find out what the fuss had been about.
Usually Dave would use a wheel frame when carrying objects. In this case he thought he could manage one record without falling. However, he misjudged his first few steps towards the cash desk and plunged forward, stumbling into a woman and sending them both bouncing down onto the padded floor.
“Fucking Moron”, the woman said hotly. “Use a wheel frame you fat bastard, otherwise you’ll hurt someone”.
Dave had fallen facing away from the woman. He tried to roll over. As he strained the woman picked up the record he’d dropped and looked at the cover. Then in a hushed voice she said, “Are you actually going to listen this, you wonky pervert?”
Dave, out of breath, pushed himself around. His face got unintentionally close to the woman’s face and they each felt the other’s breath. Dave’s breath smelt of bagel and coffee, and – more distantly – stomach acid. A smell that comes from someone with a weak stomach tract eating fatty foods and lying around in bed until late. So much in the smell of someone’s breathe. Sandra’s smelt of stale cigarettes and chewing gum. There was an unexpected and comfortable pause. Before seeing her, Dave had felt good about this woman even as she called him a fat badtard. As she then spoke in a hushed voice it separated them, made her an accomplice (Falling was common place, so no one intervened into their little cabal). Now, looking at her, he felt even more comfortable, realising that she was at least as ugly as he was. He could probably lose weight and look not bad. This woman was already very thin.
‘Yeah,’ he said in his strained hi-pitched voice. He pushed his lips out gormlessly as he did when presenting an “argument”.
‘I bet it’s the last copy, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ replied Dave proudly. He raised his eyebrows mysteriously.
‘Tell you what,’ started Sandra, now being more friendly, ‘If you want you can come round to my house and listen to it there. I provide the booze, you provide the entertainment.’
‘Yeh, alright,’ said Dave before correcting himself in the manner of someone lacking any social graces. ‘Well, you know, I’ll have to check what I’m doing and like when you are thinking of it.’ Dave doesn’t drink, but even so thought it was a good deal.
‘Yeah.’ Dave kept nodding as if trying to get some anonymous onlookers to agree that he was doing well in this fledgling relationship.
‘Great, my boyfriend’s been waiting to listen to it for ages.’ Sandra crawled up to the nearest secure handle (known as a shush) – there were many – and cautiously pulled herself up.
Dave didn’t want to seem presumptuous and so said nothing about the boyfriend, though inside he felt disappointed. He told himself to ‘shush’, the associations of the word helping to steady his emotions.
Outside the shop, once Sandra had given Dave an address (told him that she was called Sandy and headed away) Dave stood for a minute to steady himself. This was lot of excitement for one day.
A newspaper stand nearby showed a picture of Andrew Gorman. Dave may struggle with social situations and much of the terrain demarcated by common sense, but he was good at retaining details and remembering people’s names. Andrew Gorman was a descendent of Maurice Gorman, the inventor of gyroscopic technology some 250 years ago. For proponents of this technology Maurice had “invented balance.” Dave edged closer to read the small print on the holdable A4-size newspaper. It was in fact exactly 250 years since Maurice had added gyroscopes to any number of unstable apparatuses to improve their functioning. Architecture and engineering in particular had developed at a rapid pace thanks to this pioneer. The 4-5 storey giants populating modern cities, the paper suggested, would not exist without Maurice.
‘Andrew Gorman comes home to help with the 250-year celebrations of the “Father of balance”,’ Dave read. He could see that the paper then trotted out the familiar narrative, learnt almost by heart by most people at school.
Balance, the story goes, has been an obsession throughout recorded history. Ancient civilizations were able to contemplate balance abstractly thanks to the development of geometry. But these abstract and disembodied concepts broke down as people tried to act in the world. Theoretical achievements aside, humanity was still unmistakably maladroit. Pagan societies celebrated a world that was destabilised, something that through modern eyes seems barbaric. Certain tools and devices were made to help support the body throughout the middle ages. Whilst these frames usually had a religious underpinning – as monotheism started to revive balance as a virtue – it was in combat that the frames proved their worth. With the Renaissance, the development of perspective gave people a vision of a balanced world, one the ancients had conceived of but not fully realised. But – a heavy emphasis on this but in the literature – only with the emergence of gyroscopic technology did something approaching an intuitive sense of balance emerge so that human technologies could flourish. From gyroscopic children’s toys, which instilled an early sense of what to aspire to, to production lines set up with gyroscopes that ensured products were centred.
Dave’s education had been somewhat liberal and so balanced this history, which tends to paint a picture of civilization as something floundering until Gorman’s great break through, with the “Second Great Strand,” namely, a history of music. Where balance might seem hard to achieve, people have never struggled with rhythm. Having a good sense of rhythm is a surprisingly good compensation for having poor immediate spatial co-ordination.
Dave’s dad had said to Dave once that it was music that really saved the world. He used to say, ‘it’s just that there’s more money in balance at the moment. But listen Davey,’ Dave remembered as if it were recorded on a record now and again spinning in his mind, ‘I tell you this. In our world, music is still king, still far more developed than anything else. Sometimes I feel the whole world is retarded, except when it listens to music.’
Dave hated the way his dad used the word “retarded.” His dad had never called Dave a retard, but many had and it made him feel low. He didn’t like the idea of that word – the ‘r’ word – being anywhere in his dad’s thoughts, ever.
At school, music and balance were taught as opposites. Music was thought to be natural where balance was thought to be constructed by technology. For some, music represented the past and balance represented the future. Attempts years ago to colonise other parts of the world has often justified there efforts through a rhetoric that suggested other peoples’ needed to be rescued from their own lop-sidedness. They were musical and disorderly. Thankfully – Dave thought – the armies of the so-called west – even using gyroscopic technologies – were thwarted: by trip wires, rugged terrain, shingle, vines and mud. Scarily, the current political climate it made it feel like it was only the technology holding back the expeditions. Like, if people could go and take over other people’s countries they would. Not enough people realised that was an awful idea in the first place.
Julia, who was Dave’s oldest friend and confidante, and who was in Dave’s opinion the cleverest person he had ever met, had another idea that went beyond the “Second Great Strand.” She said that thinking that music and balance were separate things was wrong. One of the things (‘one of the many things,’ she always added) that shows the connection between the two is the wheel. ‘Not a cart wheel Dave, but think more of a potter’s wheel or a wood turner’s wheel,’ Dave remembered again in granular detail. Turning wood produces a balanced object, always symmetrical. Likewise a potter who utilises centripetal force achieves something balanced. ‘And what do wheels do Dave?’ she had asked him, with her beautiful smile and radiant enthusiasm for the subject. ‘They spin?’, he had suggested. ‘Yeah, and when they spin they create a rhythm, like an instrument’, she proffered. It always amazed Dave how clearly he could hear her voice: ‘The apparent genius of Maurice Gorman was not “inventing balance” or allowing a new stand of human expression to emerge – misguidedly now considered to be “The First Strand” – but of actually recognising that wheels might allow music to take spatial forms. A gyro is just a kind of wheel. And I think Maurice himself knew this, but people have forgotten and simplified and warped the story.’
Dave thought of Julia and his Dad in the present tense. Even though both had been dead for over ten years he still considered them to be with him, his only friends.
Dave moved and caught his reflection in the Perspex wall of the record shop. Like most people of his age, who had lived a good portion of their lives in relatively unprotected zones, his face reflected many falls through scars and slight mis-shaping. His recent to grow a beard was an attempt to hide a bad scar he got two years ago whilst foolishly walking outside a protected zone.
In his mind his Dad had shouted at him for being stupid. Other peoples’ voices haunted him so much he sometimes wondered if he had one of his own. But he liked the idea that maybe his Dad and Julia kind of borrowed his brain.
A tear ran down Dave’s cheek and he looked down to see it hit the plastic padding of the sidewalk with a familiar fizzy thud. His hands holding the record trembled slightly. He blinked to try to stop his eyes being blurry and in the moment the record came into focus he heard Julia’s voice again. ‘A record Dave, think about it, is another kind of wheel. What an amazing technology. Making little bumps in the surface of something that can then spin and therefore have a balanced form, it’s beautiful. Records are beautiful.”
Hearing Julia and his dad comforted Dave. Sometimes he’d hear them say things relevant to situations he was in. Sometimes things that he knew they’d never actually said to him in real life. It felt special.
He surveyed the street, trying to relax and allow it to penetrate him. It was made up of low-rise anonymous buildings, but there was some history here. Cairns was the last public house to accept a two unit alcohol limit for clientele. There had been mornings when the road outside Cairns – being the sole place to continue to serve up to 5 units – was effectively closed by bodies squirming about, incapable of upright mobility. People often literally crawled home hours later.
In the present evening, after a ready-meal, Dave had got a 22 bus to go and meet Sandy and her boyfriend so they could listen to the record. The interior colours of the buses in this city always made Dave smile to himself – bright red, blue, pale blue and yellow – made the inside space look like a crèche. The bus was quiet so Dave just laid on the nearest part of the padded floor and looked up at the scrolling sign on the ceiling to work out how long it might be until he got there.
It took about 30 minutes. Dave used one of the many shushes to slowly pull himself up and then walked slowly and carefully down the ramp. Sandra’s house wasn’t far from the stop as she had told him – otherwise he would have come on his scooter.
This was a new built estate and so Dave didn’t have to risk imbalance by knocking when he arrived at the house, he just shouted ‘hello’ into the intercom, which recognising the word sounded a bell which Sandy responded to by pressing a button to automatically open the door. Dave was wearing his best but still rather cheap shirt; he was conscious of the way it rustled as his pushed through the padded door frame. In the hall he was hit by the smell of washing powder, cigarettes and a slightly fusty damp smell.
No one came to great him or even shout to him to come in, which he found a bit rude. Dave stood for a while, then leaned, as the concentration required to balance started to give him a headache. Still no one came to him. So he decided he better go and look for them.
Clothes were strewn about the ground presenting numerous obstacles. The kitchen off the main hall was pretty disgusting. Dave’s usual all-black get-up and lazy morning routine might not give people the impression of him being a clean freak, but he had various neuroses about his own personal space and kept everything in order. He had always struggled with social situations and found that keeping his home clean made it feel like a special safe house that no-matter-what he could return to. If the dishes were tidied away, he could indulge the mild chaos of Open Records.
The house was small so he only had to put a foot inside the rooms coming off the square hall to see there was no one downstairs.
‘Hello,’ he called out as loud as he could in his squeaky voice. The outside door opened again. Dave realised that it must just be automatically set to open during certain times of day whenever someone said ‘hello.’ A cool breeze came in. The door didn’t close. It must be one of those that sense a body pass through before triggering a short timer and closing again, Dave thought.
‘Fuck’: Dave walked through the doorway to the outside to trigger the timer, and then moved to go inside. But the door moved rapidly and before Dave could build up momentum it had trapped his right arm and right leg. It wasn’t sore as it was all padded, but he found it exasperating. By now he was clammy and really starting to feel unnerved by all this.
‘F-F-Fucking hello, you b-bastard,’ he spat with a slight stutter into the receiver. It didn’t work. The machine was winning. ‘Hello,’ he said softly and politely. The door opened. Dave stood back, took stock and rushed into the hallway, falling against the doors of the lift. The front door finally closed as it should. Dave had bent his left hand under his body which hurt. ‘You need to lose weight you fat bastard,’ his dad said. ‘I don’t know why you are putting yourself through this,’ Julia whispered.
Dave pulled himself up by holding onto the shush of the lift. He was really sweating now and feeling lousy and tired. He resolved not to stay, but wanted to make Sandy know that he’d been there. ‘Open,’ he said, and the lift opened. He panted and walked in and almost puked up the word, ‘up.’ After a two second pause there was a clunk and the lift started to move slowly up.
He came out to a landing that was smaller than the hall downstairs. There were three doors, two slightly ajar. One was some kind of box room, the other – Dave could see without moving – was the bathroom. Dave checked his shirt and wiped his brow and then pushed open the third door. Sandy, laid on her back, and her boyfriend, over her with his back to Dave, were obviously in the middle of having sex. If this wasn’t apparent to Dave, who was not a “man of the world,” then it became so when Sandy and Dave’s eyes met and she screamed. Sandy’s boyfriend initially took this as a sign of success and continued for a moment before registering the alarm. He tried to move up but twisted in a weird way and ended up stumbling forwards, his testicles brushing Sandy’s hair as she tried to sit up. He crashed into the padded wall at the far side of the room.
Dave panicked and wanted to run, but he was aware that he was just staring at Sandy. Sandy’s boyfriend turned around but made no attempt to move from the floor. Was he stoned, Dave wondered? Dave was still looking; he had never seen a naked woman before. Sandy’s boyfriend was still looking at Dave. He seemed slightly bemused more than anything. Dave still wanted to run, but this was too much and his head swam. He started to wobble and fell slowly and ominously forwards on top of Sandy who resumed screaming. With Sandy pushing him hard Dave quickly rolled off her to the side.
‘You don’t mess around do you mate?’, said the boyfriend in a dry ironic accent. He obviously saw no threat in the rather flustered and innocent Dave. It just seemed like a joke. Oddly, that assumption hurt Dave slightly, but he was relieved too.
Dave lay prone for a moment. The atmosphere of the room suddenly hit him, the smell of drugs and sex, alcohol and perfume. The ceiling was painted black and the whole place felt like something from a cheap horror movie. ‘It’s time to go Dave, this isn’t for you,’ said Julia. ‘It’s been interesting I’m sure, but you’ll find better friends than this.’
It had probably taken Dave five minutes to actually get up and scuttle out of the room. But he was home safe now and looking at the record that had caused all this trouble. He’d taken a shower and even re-washed some dishes that he’d washed earlier and was just starting to feel better. He took the record out and put it into his precious record player. After a brief message from the producers, a glib voice came in with the background sound of ‘whacky’ music. ‘This is new; this has not been done before. Forthright Radio brings you the sounds of … people falling, colliding, bumping and busting themselves up. Make sure you are laid safely and be prepared to laugh yourself silly.’ Dave patiently listened to the host’s terrible jokes, they were then followed by scuffling and crashing sounds, all described by the host, known as Miss Simone. ‘Here comes Trevor, looking oh so proud of himself carrying a birthday cake for his 64-year-old wife, but what’s this… ouch that’s got to hurt and the cake is all over his wife’s face.’
Dave looked at the packet. In addition to the original brightly coloured labels, there was some more contemporary contextual information. The show had apparently capitalised on the often open microphones in people’s houses, like the door in Sandy’s house, but generally in people’s phones and other appliances triggered by voices. If you fell or did something the show might consider funny you were encouraged by monetary incentive to retrieve it from various ‘black box’ memory units inbuilt into most things. You then presumably had to send it to the production team with a letter explaining what happened. It was a tenuous process to say the least. Dave’s mind went back to the horror he’d experienced that evening, accompanied now by the sound of scuffling and panting from the record player. The horror of it gripped him, exasperated by the thought of others finding it funny.
Dave reached out a hand, gently stopped the machine and lifted off the record. He threw it to smash it against the wall. Of course, the wall was soft and so it didn’t smash, but he felt a little better anyway. It’s hard just being a person and meeting the expectations of the world, Dave thought to himself, without rubbing failings in your face. The critics, he felt, had a point.
His own records were stored inside the record player, all he had to do was grab the controller and type in a number. After a series of clicking sounds and whirring his favourite music began: a wild Jazz track called “Free Love.” It was definitely imbalanced to an untrained ear, but for Dave it had the kind of complexity that really said something about living in a world full of change and discord. He might not be “school smart,” he mused, but he was “jazz smart.” He leaned back in his soft chair. Julie and his dad said nothing and just silently listened to the music with him.