I’d been learning the violin for three excruciating years. Hating every minute of it. But it’s not always easy to tell your parents such things. “Don’t be silly; you love it really,” would have been their response. I expressed my frustration by playing atrociously.
The lesson that Saturday began like any other. I dragged my bow across the strings. It swerved onto the bridge, producing the usual screech.
Mrs Anderson winced.
“Shelley, the bow needs to be perpendicular to the strings and parallel with the bridge.”
She said that every lesson. I took no notice. The more she said it, the more I slouched and perfected my sullen look in preference to my bowing technique.
Mrs Anderson blew sharply through her nose. I tried again. The violin shrieked like a demented cormorant and a dozen bow hairs snapped.
Mrs Anderson snapped too.
“You wretched girl, you –” at which point she started swearing at me. Teachers shouldn’t curse, nor spit, I decided, as a disgusting gob of saliva landed on my violin.
I tried to say sorry, even though she was the one who needed to apologise, but my words were masked by loud hammering from next door. A blackbird called a raucous alarm. I thought it was objecting to the hammering, but no – it was unnerved by a large, saucer-shaped object which was coming down to land in the garden.
“What in the name of…?” said Mrs Anderson.
“It’s a flying saucer, Miss,” I said, gratified to know more than my teacher for once. “Take me to your leader,” I added in a deep voice.
The saucer came to rest in the middle of the lawn. A door in the side opened with a hiss and a string quartet emerged – two violins, a viola and a cello, all made of string.
“A ‘string’ quartet? Coolio! Do you suppose –? Hey, Mrs Anderson, could you knit me a string violin?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Typical. Show an interest for once, and get told off.
“I’m going to talk to them,” I said. “You coming?”
“You’ll do no such thing young lady. Wait here. I’m going to phone the police. Do NOT go outside. They might be infectious.”
Liable to infect me with what – melodies?
I waited until Mrs Anderson had retreated into the hallway before plonking my violin on the sofa and going outside to meet the alien quartet.
Not only were the instruments made of string, the players were too.
“Greetings, Earth Child,” said a length of rope.
“Hello. I’m Shelley. May I have a go on your violin?”
“No, Shelley.” I snorted at the old joke and reached out for the woolly instrument.
The rope handed me the violin, which started unravelling as soon as I took hold of it.
“We heard your violin screaming out across the universe, so have come to offer assistance.”
“This way, please.”
Well, why not? I handed the now hopelessly tangled violin back to the rope and followed the string quartet up the ramp.
The saucer’s insides smelled faintly of tar – like my Dad’s garden twine. One group of string people were knitting instruments, while another group were playing the results.
“Too quiet. Why’s there no resonance?” I asked the nearest piece of twine.
“It’s… umm…” I didn’t know how to explain. Something to do with sound posts? Bass bars?
“It’s how my violin makes sounds. Your instruments are too quiet. They need to make the air around them vibrate.”
“But the vibrations around your violin were agonised. The instrument was screeching.”
“That’s because I play too close to the bridge.”
“Why do you do that?”
I was trying to think up a reply that didn’t make me sound too much of an idiot when the flying saucer lurched and hissed.
“What was that?”
“Sorry – left the atmosphere too quickly. It’s not usually so bumpy.”
I charged over to a viewing window and looked out. Planet Earth was zooming away. Soon all I could see was a blue swirly globe in the darkness.
Okay, so I was tripping out to space on a flying saucer. The only problem I could see was how to get my mates back home to believe my story when I came down, but I could deal with that later.
I pulled one of the ‘string’ instruments taut and plucked it.
“That’s rubbish,” I said to the twine. “No wonder your orchestra’s inaudible.
“They’re not inaudible,” said the twine. “They thrum.”
“Doesn’t that send the audience to sleep?”
“Yes. Isn’t that the point?”
“No. The audience should enjoy the music.”
“I agree, but as they enjoy sleeping, they must be enjoying the music.” The twine knotted itself into a smug-looking half-hitch.
The lights dimmed, and everyone turned towards the soft-speakers.
“The music of the spheres. Listen!”
I listened, but couldn’t hear anything. After a few minutes I pulled on the end of the twine and mouthed ‘I can’t hear anything’ as clearly as I could. The twine crumpled, then straightened and laid itself along the floor, curling into letters which I read out loud: “The music of the spheres is the purest of sounds. Perfect. Inaudible.”
When the lights came up, the twine settled itself into a comfortable reef knot. “Think about that scritch-scratch-screech sound you make on your violin. Dreadful, isn’t it?”
“Yeppers. Makes my head hurt.”
“So the opposite of that would be the best possible sound?”
“The opposite of a harsh ugly sound is silence, yes?”
“No, the opposite of a harsh ugly sound is a beautiful sweet sound. Not silence. Silence is boring.” I was growing tired of this conversation. “Can I go home now please?”
“Wouldn’t you like to see the outer reaches of the galaxy first? It’s wonderfully quiet amongst the clouds of dark matter.”
“Sounds even worse than silence. I like crash bang wallops and fireworks.”
“We can do fireworks. Like to see a quasar?”
“Yeah, why not.”
The twine scurried off to talk to the captain, a sturdy looking rope with impeccable knots.
“We’ll need to go into stasis,” he said. Twine?”
“You know what to do.”
“Sir. Come with me please, Shelley.”
I followed the twine down the spiral corridor to the hub of the saucer. The twine indicated a pod.
“In you get.”
“You’re joking. It’s tiny.”
“Wind yourself into a ball.”
“Can’t. I’m not made of string.”
“Fold then. Can you bend?”
“Um. Yes. Think so.”
Worrying that I might do something awful like burst into tears, I took a deep breath and squeezed into the pod before the twine could see I was shaking.
“That’s the idea!” said the twine cheerfully as it slammed the door shut.
I believe I fell asleep instantly.
The next bit is confusing. As far as I understand, having discussed the matter with the twine afterwards, once we were all ensconced in our pods an automated computer program initiated instantaneous light speed. It shouldn’t have done that. There was supposed to be a gradual acceleration, but nobody had run the anti-virus software or de-fragmented the hard drive for ages (everyone was too busy making quiet music) so errors crept in, which nobody noticed because they were always asleep when it happened.
As a result, I was caught in a photon tangle. Part of my entangled self was in Mrs Anderson’s garden, where the flying saucer had been parked, but I was invisible on earth because the left-behind photons had accelerated into the gamma ray end of the electromagnetic spectrum and turned into a kind of irradiate buzz. I didn’t understand a word of this at the time, as I hadn’t done much physics at school. Even now, I’m not sure I’ve got it straight.
The pod door hissed open. I’d been dreaming about sunshine and gladioli. A green beetle fell out my hair. I held it in my palm for a second before it went ‘pop’ and disappeared in a magnesium flash.
The twine stood outside the door. It twisted itself into a smiley face.
“Are we there yet?” I asked.
“Yes. We’ve travelled two and a half billion light years.”
“Eek! Will I be home in time for tea?”
“Tea? Heavens, no. I’m afraid you’ve missed your tea, and the computer’s playing up, so I’m not at all sure about the Earth.”
“Earth? I don’t eat earth for tea.”
“I mean Planet Earth. The one due to be swallowed up by Sol.”
“What’s Sol? A cosmological kraken?”
“No, Sol’s your sun.”
“But I don’t have a son! I’m only thirteen!” I couldn’t bear it any longer. “I WANT TO GO HOME!”
“Oh dear,” said the twine, who looked close to unravelling. “I’ll see what I can do. Listen to the orchestra while I try to sort things out. Maybe they’ll let you join in.”
I thought of school concerts where the audience winced and squirmed but clapped anyway. Listening to the saucer’s string orchestra with its gentle thrumming, I decided the parents who came to the concerts would probably prefer the aliens.
“Thank you, but I don’t think I will. I’d only spoil it for everyone else.”
“All right – you can sit and listen then.”
I wished something would make a loud noise. With all their technology, they ought to be able to rig up some amplification. I drifted over to the leader of the orchestra and started telling it about pick-ups and pre-amps. There was a silence, even deeper than the previous one. The strings looked at me in horror.
Back on Earth, my irradiated buzzing self was moving through x-rays towards the visible light spectrum. Mrs Anderson later told me about squinting through the window, trying to focus on something that flickered past the vegetable patch. She decided she needed new glasses.
“We’re approaching the quasar now,” said the twine. “We can’t stay long as we’d risk being drawn in and spaghettified. As we’re strings already, that shouldn’t matter, but the thought of moving towards infinite length is too much for most of us.”
“I should think so,” I said, not sure what pasta had to do with quasars. We floated round the perimeter to a viewing window. The quasar was unimaginably bright, despite the dark glass.
“It’s equivalent to a trillion of your suns,” said the twine.
“I’ve already told you, I don’t have any kids – oh, I see what you mean.” I felt stupid having misunderstood again, so kept quiet. Light burst out in blazes of colour, perpendicular to the glowing disk that spun around the central black hole. Perpendicular? Of course – that’s what Mrs Anderson was always on about. At last I understood about bow angle, though that was more a two dimensional concept, while here I was seeing three.
“No, eleven at least,” said the twine.
I didn’t realise I’d been talking out loud.
“You weren’t. I’m a telepath.”
“Crikey! Are you all mind readers?”
“Yes. It helps to maintain silence.”
“But… eleven dimensions? Are you sure?”
“Indeed. We have heroes who have discovered this for us.”
“Right.” I knew I’d seen an article about super-string theory somewhere, so this sounded plausible. “I’d love to meet one.”
The twine chuckled. “Sorry – can’t be done. They’re too small. Now, shh… Watch the fireworks.”
The quasar was pretty, but I was going to be late for tea, and I was growing sick of the incessant thrumming.
The twine shifted slightly.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Red shift,” said the twine. “That shouldn’t happen. I wonder… please excuse me, I need to check the computer. You’re fading.”
“I’m not. You’re shifting.”
“That shouldn’t happen,” said the twine. “I wonder…”
“You just said that. You’re repeating yourself.”
“That shouldn’t happen,” said the twine.
“NO IT SHOULDN’T!”
I couldn’t stand this. I flew back round the perimeter of the flying saucer. The string orchestra were still in the same place, playing the same thrumming music, only now they were shifting further and further away, and I was scared and wanted to be home so badly, and if I ever got home, I would never play with my bow at the wrong angle to the bridge ever again, cross my heart and hope to die.
The air smelled green as a garden and I stopped running. On Earth, I was shifting back from the gamma ray end of the spectrum and into visible light, while on the saucer I was fading.
I dropped onto the lawn with an inaudible thud. The blackbird called a warning. It was the loudest sound I had heard in ages; unbearable.
“Shut up, you wretched bird. You know how to sing, so sing. Don’t squawk.”
I giggled, realising I sounded just like Mrs Anderson – who was going to be SO cross. I hoped there wouldn’t be any more shouting. That had been even scarier than folding myself into the pod.
Where was the flying saucer now? Had it red-shifted itself trillions of light years away? I could probably call it back by playing really badly again, but no – the aliens’ job was done.
I rushed indoors and rescued my violin from the sofa.
“Not safe to leave it there,” I said to a cross-looking Mrs Anderson. “Someone might sit on it, and I’d hate for anything to happen to my violin.” I nearly added, “It’s not as if it’s made of string. You can’t hurt a string violin by sitting on it,” but I suspected that talking to Mrs Anderson – or anyone else – about the alien string orchestra might not be wise. I picked up the gratifyingly solid violin and drew the bow across the strings. The sound that emerged was sweet and resonant. The blackbird outside stopped squawking, and started to listen, as did Mrs Anderson.
“Yes Shelley, that’s the idea,” she said. “That’s it exactly.”
Her new novel, Small Poisons, will be published by Circaidy Gregory Press in late 2009. Catherine's illustrative work veers between delicate portraiture, exploding dogs and decomposing toads. http://www.freewebs.com/catherineedmunds/