:: Article

Sound Bites

By John Barker.

Bold was sat on a chair by the table at the bottom of the bed. In the bed opposite the newcomer had fallen asleep, curled as an S under sheet and blanket. Ten Thirty was too early for Bold himself. Making some new and different daily rhythm was not impossible per se, he was as capable of change as the next man; ten thirty however, was beyond the pale. At a certain age one had to have learned to distinguish between what could be changed and what could not if untold grief were to be avoided. He was past that age, knew that if he were to sleep from ten thirty, then five, five thirty at the latest, would see him awake again. Two to three guaranteed hours of waiting for the day to get underway. Terrible.

The newcomer was a younger man. They had not reached the point of exchanging ages — things might never come to that — but in their two hours of acquaintance this fact had been apparent in the newcomer’s treatment of circumstances as something of an adventure. He might therefore be capable of anything, like sleeping continuously from ten fifteen through to eight o’clock. Bold himself as the occupant in residence had made no reference to turning the light out when the new man had announced his intention of going to sleep, nor had the younger man raised the matter. It might be he understood that Bold, as the one already in occupation, had certain rights or simply that the light did not bother him when it came to sleeping. Which was the case, there he was, breathing a sound rhythm.

The radio was another matter, it was just not on. He himself had been the newcomer no more than five days previously and had been faced with a dilemma. The occupant then — the one who had left this morning — had an extraordinary capacity for sleep; from eight thirty right through till seven thirty as far as Bold knew. He too had been oblivious to the light but had fallen asleep with his radio on both at volume –oblivious to that too, a phone-in — and tucked securely under his shoulder. Bold had had a bad night but handled the situation as became a man of a certain age.

-You’re giving that battery a battering, he’d pointed out the following morning. Another day and it’ll be clapped out.

True, it didn’t have to be like this. He now had the option of keeping the volume to a minimum, by placing his own radio under the bed pillow and laying his head on top of it.

He rejected the idea. There was nothing he specially wished to hear and for there to be any pleasure in listening for the sake of it, he would have to lie on his bed. It was too early for that, half an hour was the optimum period for lying on the bed pre-sleep. Instead he turned on his chair so that his back was to the sleeper. He leaned on the table and rolled a cigarette. Somewhere outside the building a tube train was decelerating. The smoke from his cigarette drifted upwards close to the wall which was painted in pale yellow: which had been painted in pale yellow five, perhaps ten year previously, it was hard to tell. Anytime from last week to a hundred years ago was theoretically possible.

On the wall directly ahead at eye-level was a roughly cut out picture of a younger woman’s face. She had one large, startling mauve eye around a shiny black pupil. Wild black hair covered the other. From outside was the sound of an aeroplane getting louder. It was loud. It carried on being loud. OK, as an adult he had used aeroplanes, indeed there had been times when they had enabled him to do things which would otherwise have been impossible, but this one, this one was taking such a to cross the immediate airspace.

He stubbed out his cigarette in what had been a sardine tin. The aeroplane noise was receding. Bold waited.

In and around the woman’s hair there were papery, quiet-pink flowers of four petals each. Her lips were shiny quiet-red and he supposed she was beautiful but mostly she looked sad. Close to the picture someone had written vertically ALISON JOHNSON I LOVE YOU in pencil. He sat back for a wider view. Somehow he didn’t take the girl in the picture to be Alison Johnson, and the writing was of too recent origin. Directly under the picture was KIM written calligraphically in mauve felt tip. Mauve lettering, mauve eye. It was possible.

The newcomer was still breathing smoothly: he was either very tired; trusting; someone who slept easily as a matter of course; or he had decided that Bold was not any kind of maniac, which was reasonable since he was not. Tired likely as not, hours in the cells at the Magistrates, hours in a holding cell in Reception.

Bold did have a book, had been reading it when the newcomer arrived. A guy called Blue had been undressing Laura in a Florida motel. They fancied each other but another guy called Schwartz had entered the room with a gun. Blue’s own, a Smith & Wesson, was out of reach in his jacket that was thrown carelessly over a chair.

He would leave it for his pre-sleep half hour of bed.

He smoothed out a blue Rizla and teased out tobacco. From a nearby window someone shouted OYOY. It sounded back again like an echo. Then again. Bold lit up and inhaled. The newcomer was shifting in his bed.


South London talk.


Maybe it would wake the guy up. He would not look round, if it was going to happen, the newcomer was entitled to do it in relative privacy. Below and to the right of the girl with the mauve eye 123456789 had been written, and under that, at an angle, I’VE KILLED WASPS in biro.


This time there was no echo. The newcomer was breathing nice and easy again, in and out. Somewhere above the girl’s picture was an accurate nine-inch high Mickey Mouse painted directly on the wall in black, white and red. There was no date attached. Away on the other side of the door he heard footsteps getting louder and got a burst of heartburn. He stood up, carefully moved his chair and stepped away from the table. From further back there was no doubting it, the girl with the wild black hair looked sad. Sad but calm, the look Bold felt from inside towards the end of an acid trip, cleaned out.

His stomach felt hard to the hand. He stroked it round and round the navel under his tee-shirt. A fart exploded softly. No need to apologize, the newcomer had straightened out and had his face to the wall fast asleep. Somewhere beyond the door a urinal was sluicing itself, a hissing burst of shower.

Above what would be the newcomer’s table was a woman’s face drawn in pencil and pink crayon. She had beautiful eyelashes. Her tongue was stuck out and her cheeks rouged with the pink crayon. Evidently he had not been looking carefully at the walls in previous days and nights. Admittedly even the pink was faded but for several hours of this particular day he had had the place to himself, a free run of that half of it which was normally the other’s territory, and yet had noticed nothing.


A door. Being kicked. Or fisted. Approximately opposite his own, by Bold’s estimation possibly at the same level, more likely one floor above. Headbutted if it was bad enough.

The noise stopped. He rubbed his stomach again in rotating fashion. His breathing was audible and in time with that of the newcomer. He frowned. Bending his head he watched his stomach moving in and out. Contraction and Expansion, it was basic: there was nothing more basic in the natural world. He held his breath and brought its sound to a halt.

The newcomer breathed on.

Bold let go and there it was, that unison, his stomach and the other’s sounds. Just one of those things, not worth making a song and dance about. It should not be that he was fussy about his going-to-sleep routine, when being fussy was one step away from the obsessive, and being obsessive was a Bad Thing.

No. No no no.

Prominent on the door was a crayoned red heart on paper. Closer examination showed faint blue capillaries had been super-imposed. He peeled one corner away from the door surface. Underneath was a blob of white on top of a small picture of a black haired woman in a cream-coloured slip. The blob would be dried toothpaste, in use as an adhesive.


It was the same door only now there was shouting too. Bold put his ear to the crack between the door edge and door frame. He could hear no words in the shouting. He heard nothing that indicated a response to the banging.

Which continued.

There was a set procedure for communication during night-time hours. It involved a bell. In this instance the banger obviously wanted to expedite matters.

There were footsteps.

They got louder. The banging got faster. A man’s voice shouted, Shut that noise up. Stop banging that bloody door.

The banging continued. A breakdown in communications.

Footsteps and banging stopped abruptly.

Bold looked back at the woman in the slip. The picture was not glossy. Either it had been cut out of a newspaper or shiny magazines lost their gloss over time. He pulled gently at the corner of the paper to look at the reverse side, but was arrested by a change of tempo from the other side of the door. There were more steel toecaps and they were running. There was jangling. Closer by someone said in a speaking voice, Just hold on a minute.

The running footsteps were louder.

Taken together Bold heard panic. It had travelled straight through the door and tightened his stomach. He glanced back at the newcomer. He appeared not to have moved at all, a green-covered diagonal ridge on the bed. Outside there were more runners. There was muttering.

There was walkie-talkie crackle.

Bold bent a little at the knees and put his eye to a round hole in the centre of the door width. The hole was chamfered through the two inch thickness of the door up to an inch and a half diameter glass circle. Behind that was another circle with a half inch diameter in the metal surface of the outer door.

A door crashed open. He heard walkie-talkie gabble.

Behind the half inch hole there was another of half the diameter cut into a moveable flap which chamfered sharply to a dot in the centre. The dot was full of electric light from the other side.

There was running and shouting from far below.

Bold moved his eye back and forth across the largest hole and saw a stretch of wire mesh through the smallest; mesh on the near side gallery, mesh on the far side. Behind that the green of the closed door directly opposite. Whatever was happening it wasn’t the tall Rasta or his mate.

-He’s still alive. I’m not sure, I think so.

It was a woman’s voice, the words clear in the walkie-talkie crackle.

A man’s voice was shouting from close by the woman. To the other occupant of whatever cell it was, Bold assumed. Had the other been asleep? Perhaps something — a strangled cry, a kicked chair — had got to him through a layer of sleep, got him up and running to the door to kick it, and back again to lift dead weight’s feet back up on the chair.

He gave up the spy-glass and put his eye to the edge of the door, pulling the woman in the slip off the wall as he moved.

-Is that stretcher coming?

It was the woman’s voice. Followed by walkie-talkie noise.

-Make sure the ambulance comes right up to B wing gates. Have you made that clear?

They would have cut him down. Or it was a stomach pump job. He supposed they had some basic training in mouth-to-mouth.

The reverse side of the woman in the slip said TV in bold print with some text underneath: Upstairs lurks another television, a portable which moves from bedroom to bedroom according to whether it is Lindy or…

More shouting. Keys jangled with loud shoes coming up a metal-tread staircase.

Bold threw the paper to the floor and stepped back from the door. Above it someone had written LIFE IS HARD, BITE IT in black felt tip. Wiseguy.

A door slammed shut. Several feet moved briskly along a gallery, the one opposite on the floor above.

Bold didn’t feel so good. He sat down in his chair. The newcomer slept on. He could hear them clattering down stairs. It wouldn’t be easy with a stretcher. Someone was still up on the upper gallery. He was shouting.

Then a door slammed. Single footsteps set off along the gallery. On the staircase they went clackclack. One flight, two flights, three flights, four.

Bold rolled a cigarette. A shiny woman naked except for a red stole was staring at him from the wall at the other side of the doorframe. She was poised on her clitoris with long, red-painted fingernails. He leaned over and ripped it off the wall. Underneath was a jagged hole in the pale yellow. Around the edge he could see inward steps of other colours: before the yellow it had been blue; and before the blue, a light brown. He dropped the unlit cigarette and bent down to look more carefully. Underneath the light brown there was a flake of green sticking out into the chalky white at the centre of the hole. Just above it was written in neat black biro,


John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 14th, 2009.