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Luke Williams
Luke Williams

Luke Williams won the Saltire Prize for his first novel The Echo Chamber (2011) and he is currently working on a second book that tells the story of the island of Diego Garcia. Luke’s writing is research-based and seeks, via collaborative practice and the use of selected constraints, to close the formal gap between history and story. His work is informed by studies in History at Edinburgh University and Creative Writing at UEA. He co-organises the occasional live literature night, Plum.

The Echo Chamber
The Echo Chamber


ONE

First questions


 

Who are you?

My name is Evie Steppman.

 

Where were you born?

Children’s Hospital, Lagos.

 

When?

August 2nd, 1946.

 

In any special circumstance?

I was late.

 

How late?

Two months.

 

Go on.

I was not ready to emerge after nine months. Happy in the womb, free from worldly concerns and the rules of men, I felt no impulse to move on. I possessed the foetal license—indeed, the prerogative—to gambol. Trembles met with, ‘Do you feel him kick, dear?’ or, ‘Certainly a strong one.’ Hands, ears and lips were pressed to my mother’s stomach. ‘It’s like a factory in there,’ joked my father, ‘I can hear clattering machinery, a baby-construction works.’ I delighted in my formlessness. Half-fish, half-girl—a mermaid!—I rolled as if free from gravity. I luxuriated in the confusion. Such licensed disorder!

 

[Pause]

 

How did your belated arrival affect your life?

It killed my mother.

 

Yes?

It caused my father to lose his faith in Progress.

 

Yes?

It gave me the power of listening.

 

How so?

In the evening, when each day’s duty as District Officer was complete, my father crouched beside my mother and chattered to her swollen belly. Kneeling awkwardly on the hardwood veranda floor, his hands gripping the reclining chair upon which Mother lay, he read me Dickens and Darwin, the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, Typhoon and Treasure Island. He recited Housman and the Lord’s Prayer. I learned how the elephant got his trunk, the principles of Indirect Rule. We entered with El-Edrisi into distant lands where fantastic races lived. We accompanied Mungo Park north towards Timbuktu and, with Sir Frederic Lugard, sojourned at Lokaja. He discoursed on zoos and craniology. He talked of masks, of goblins, turning from myth to biology to Christmas. One evening, bent over Mother’s stomach, as he attended to the names of the seven seas, in between the Indian and the Aegean, I punched him on the nose. Undeterred, he opened the Bible and recited the seven deadly sins. Then he told me of the colour-filled nights of Bruno Schulz. While I turned somersaults and figures-of-eight, Father worked through the volumes that informed his inconstant mind.

          And perhaps it was the monotony of this persistent address (accompanied by the tic-toc of Father’s pocket watch, which invariably slipped from its niche to rest—an inverse stethoscope—on Mother’s belly) that bred in me the will to listen. He spoke in the most formal and stilted manner, as if I were a schoolboy! his voice loud and always earnest. Each history, novel, treatise, sounded similar, and I found it hard to distinguish H. Rider Haggard from Aunt Phoene’s letters, the Great Chain of Being from the Nocturama at Edinburgh Zoo.

          Week after week he persisted with this schooling. I felt the discomfort of one who is compelled to sit through a long and awkward joke. Setting out to tell a story, which may have been a fine one, Father invariably failed. The world he brought me via my mother’s stomach was vibrant, but devoid of nuance, a world in which every legend and report, every plot and character sounded alike.

          How strange it was, then, to find, in the outside world, contrast, division, difference. I knew that outside my mother a large territory existed. Already my ears had started to pick out sounds from the amorphous hum of Lagos. I recognised, for instance, the murmur of the sea. This was easy, since I grew in moon cycles. I perceived the sharp salute of gunfire and the chimes of Lagos Clock, sounds I feared. Yet these scattered tones were engulfed in the coursing hum of blood, soothing to my ear, and by my father’s nightly readings. It was much later that I perfected my art of listening.

 

[Pause]

 

You dallied in the womb because you were afraid of the outside?

I was comfy.

 

Were you hungry for your father’s knowledge?

I never wholly understood what he was talking about. Father was pedantic but erratic. A whim might catch him and take us on an alternate inquiry. He would abandon his station beside Mother and go cycling, returning days later only to begin elsewhere. Quite simply: my father rarely finished a single lesson. Just as he was reaching the high point of his recitation, his mind failed and he wandered from the current theme, anxious to pursue the next.

Did you enjoy your father’s readings?

They wearied me. He gave me lessons and I wanted stories. But I listened. With frustration I listened. And as I did my ears began to develop. The more I heard, the greater my knowledge, and the keener my powers of listening became. My other senses had no time to refine themselves in the womb, for what can you see inside that dark chamber? The amniotic fluid—salty, viscous and vile—is the only flavour. And what to smell?

 

[Pause]

 

Tell me about your powers of listening. 

I am losing them. Slowly at first, but with increasing alacrity, the sounds that I once so clearly perceived are starting to merge. No longer can I distinguish, order and remember each noise. It is true, my hearing is still uncommonly acute. With effort I can pick out echoes of my childhood in Lagos: seated uncomfortably in my wicker swinging-basket, suspended above our immaculate lawn, which sloped toward the Lagoon, I hear the calls of Jankara market women, broadcasting the succulence of their goods with words I do not understand, so that amidst the commonality of staple foods—palm oil, tilapia, yams, groundnuts and spices—I fancy I hear entreaties to enter card games, river cruises, witch hunts. The elephant grass at the edge of our garden obscures my view of Ade, our servant-boy, but I can hear him; he is making telephones from empty cans and lengths of string. In the distance the thud of leather striking wood tells me that Riley has scored another Four. I hear teacups rattling, the sound of Father playing solitaire, clocks, footsteps, the bulb-horn of a goods lorry; listening harder, I hear the sound of the driver’s forehead pressed against the windscreen, vibrating in time to the engine idling. In the harbour, below the mastheads, there is the clamour of men and derricks unloading soap, pots and pans, mail, saddles, a jukebox, an umbrella, tea, sugar, gin, boxes of cigars, rifles, tuxedoes, steel, fireworks, brine, chocolate, camp-chairs, and an elegant high-sprung dogcart made in Manchester. I hear the cries of merchant seamen and they commingle in my mind with older, less familiar voices; those of the first English explorers, the unfortunate men who not two hundred years ago sang the most sinister of sea shanties as they neared the Niger coast:

 

Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin

There’s one comes out for forty goes in;

 

and those of the slaving ships, their silent crewmen, and the barely audible dirge of their living cargo.

          Yet there are disturbing lapses in my audition. I find for instance I cannot play my favourite childhood game. During the hot hours after lunch, with Iffe at the market, I would slip from the onion stand to the streets of Lagos. I recall the brightness. The smell of sweating bodies, drying fish and open sewers. I would close my eyes. The street-sounds, I found, were intelligible—by my eighth year I could distinguish between the pitch of the Governor’s Austin 12 Tourer and the Chief’s Mercedes—yet I detected other noises, new to my ears; noises that disturbed and delighted; noises that appeared to a maturing girl at once violent and inspired. Back home I would play out the drama of these stolen moments with my dolls. I had Red Ridinghood kissing Rupert Bear, my Victorian china doll groping with the Nigger Minstrel from America.

          Still worse: I find I can no longer listen to others; as if now, in my middle years, I am turning into the vacant, fidgety child I never was. Where once I possessed the power to listen, I now squirm, empathise and feel compelled to interject. How different it was before! I grew, developed like any child. I began to see, to touch, to smell and taste. But before it all I learnt to listen. This, together with my gift for rapt attention, was a combination irresistible to the men and women of British Africa. The servants of empire were a muddled bunch: second sons, bored wives, athletes, soldiers, clergy. They each had something to prove, to boast about…to confess. ‘Why did you come to Africa?’—none knew precisely, but everyone had a story—‘How I got here? Well…’ ‘Those pesky clerks!’ ‘I love to shoot monkeys.’

          And I, Evie Steppman, heard all their stories. I am the (until now silent) repository of the dreamers of empire.

 

Why did you put up with it?

I found in these confessions the stories that were absent from Father’s lessons.

 

[Pause. A scurrying among the rafters]

 

It is these same stories that I am now forgetting.

 

What are you going to do?

I must write. Set down on paper. Faithfully record my past before it becomes tinnitus and is lost. But how dreary. How dim and unnatural words are! How distanced from the live thing, the unknown generous gentlemanly thing, the cutting and distorting yet strangely exact pitch of my child’s hearing, are words. There are no words that can transcribe the vibrancy of my audition.

          Reluctantly I write.

[Pause. Silence. From which open quiet sea-sounds, dully, distantly, echoes of sea wrecks, surfpurl, tin-can music. Silence. Through which rasps a shrill whistle, a dog’s bark, softcrunching boots. Silence. And now wakings of battles, seagulfs, sirens.]

 

Where are you?

Gullane, East Scotland.

 

From where, exactly, are you writing?

From the house that we—Father and I—lived in from 1961.

 

Tell me about this house.

It is a two-storey house on the sea-front. I have confined myself to the ground floor, although lately I have made frequent trips to the attic, which I am attempting to clear out.

 

What is there to throw away?

A machete, a Lord’s lamp, railway timetables, a match box containing not a single match. There is a tin marked unica, a radio, piles of tapes, pocket change, a ring of keys, mirrors, a rifle, a silver pocket watch with an absent minute hand. There is a cricket bat, a phonograph with its great horn, a family photograph album, an elephant tusk, files, tacks, pencils, cigarette ash, paperclips, rubber bands, a bronze pendant from Benin, several pairs of shoes, unanswered letters, an old purple dressing gown. Hanging by a single hook is a map of the world, with gaps bitten from it. Books line the west-facing wall: histories, novels, treatises, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911. One day not too long from now I plan to itemise these objects. Dominating the room are piles of papers, some my father’s, some my own. At one point, during his final months, my father bundled them up, ready for burning. It was also at this time his mind became riddled by Cat.

 

Cat?

Back in Britain Father sank deeper and impenetrably into his past. Spending more and more hours in the attic, listless with false memories of a glorious career, he receded into the incongruous corridors of history. Time was stalking him like a shadow cat. During his top-floor retreat (he descended only to pass water, and, latterly, not at all, making use of a metal pail, which I would have to empty), he complained of scratching noises—mice. Even now, writing these words from my own place in the attic, I can follow the sound of tiny feet up beyond the ceiling, and across, left, right, to the oak-wood walls; yes, the scratching is all about me, the mice are in the attic, making homes among the discarded items.

 

But what of Cat?

Let me tell you a story. When Sagoe was aged eight he saw a sheep hanging in a butcher’s window. Sagoe told his father about it, because he was hungry and had not eaten meat in months.

          ‘Go, buy me the head of the sheep!’ his father commanded.

          Sagoe went to the butcher and bought the head. On the way home he ate the meat and returned with a skull.

          ‘What have you brought me?’ his father cried.

          ‘It’s a sheep’s head,’ Sagoe said.

          ‘Where are the eyes?’

          ‘The sheep was blind.’

          ‘And where’s the tongue?’

          ‘The sheep was dumb.’

          ‘And where are the ears?’

          ‘The sheep was deaf.’

          ‘Cat,’ cried his father. But Sagoe had already run to the forest, leaving scorch marks on the dirt road.

          I tell too much.

 

Go on.

 

[Pause]

 

Tell me more.

 

[Silence]

 

You can’t stop there.

 

[Pause. Silence. A cat’s cry. The scratching of sharpclawing paws. A winged insect thunders against the skylight]

 

Listen: A woman, not young, sits at her makeshift desk; ponderously, with shaking hands—it is cold—she surveys the room; her eyes rest first on the keyboard of her computer, then rise to the skylight, taking in the darkening sky. She hears the noise of the traffic; slowly, eschewing the city-sounds below, she turns from the skylight, rubbing her palms together for warmth, and begins—where to begin?—to recount her history—which is really the history of herself and Ade and Iffe and Nikolas and Mr Rafferty and Babatundi the idiot boy and Riley’s pointer and Mr and Mrs Honeyman and Damaris and Taiwo and her father, as well as the impossibility of a mother who died in childbirth and the histories of countless others—and what to tell?—what is true, what was once true, what has been, might have been, what is?—and how to go about it? She asks herself a question—Who are you?—and another—Where were you born?—because this is what she knows best—at the outset, in the middle, she always asked questions; and here come the words, bit-by-bit; bit-by-bit the words form upon the page.

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