Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley
Some people rarely notice their many habits... others aren't so lucky.
The radio vanished first. It wasn't much of a radio--an old yellow Philco with valves and dust and only AM and, truth to tell, he'd been planning to replace it for years. In the normal run of things its loss would have been the mild pleasure of a chore no longer required; if it had broken down or been lent to a friend or even been stolen, he would have had to buy a new one and that would have been that. But radios don't just vanish, especially at a quarter past seven on a Saturday evening. Most especially when you can still hear them.
He was a man of expensively won habits. It wasn't until his fourth decade that he learned this, and since then had reluctantly lent more and more of his energy to building tiny mechanisms of place and time to keep the world at bay. Put the rubbish out on Wednesday morning, or you'll miss the collection. Laundry on Tuesday. Groceries on Saturday afternoon, after paying the bills at the post office. Small things that most people did with no more thought than scratching, but which made his mind squirm impatiently and with the utmost bad grace. He wasn't sure that always having the fridge stocked with croissants for breakfast was worth it: a small reward.
At seven on a Saturday evening, every Saturday evening, he put the radio on for the news and, at ten past seven, the play. He listened to this from an armchair, one of the few pieces of his parents' furniture he'd kept when his mother had died, which he otherwise never used. At half past eight, he turned the radio off again and retired for an early night--another costly necessity--with a book.
This Saturday, however ... the news finished, the play started, and he found himself imagining the studio during the recording. Scruffy lot, radio actors, trying not to rustle their scripts or get too much Home Counties in their American or Somerset or Irish accents. A sentence had finished, he realized, some time ago. He couldn't quite remember when. He looked up at the radio just as an actor finally said "But surely, Mrs. Bewley...," but the radio wasn't there.
He stared. The place where it should be was there--the gap on the table between the austere little decanter and the undusted chess set--and the play was there. The quizzing of Mrs. Bewley continued. Perhaps, he thought, I did throw the radio out last week. I was meaning to do it. But he remembered turning it on. Then again, he did that every week, he told himself. Of course he remembered doing it. And Mrs. Bewley? Obviously the man next door listening at too high a volume again. He really should have a word ...but since he wanted to hear the play and hadn't remembered to buy a new radio, he'd overlook it this time.
Yes, it all made sense.
When, at half-past eight, the play finished, there was a little click and silence returned. He got up from his chair and turned in for the night, hardly noticing the new space on the table and already thinking about his Sunday habits: the shoe cleaning and the walk through the woods.
During the week, a toothbrush, a rug, and an unread dictionary vanished in much the same way. On Saturday afternoon he bought a new toothbrush and also a new radio, a small Sony that ran on batteries that lasted "forever," or so the salesman said. He particularly wanted a battery model, because there was only one socket in the front room, the one where the old Philco used to be plugged in and that was, he remembered, faulty.
A friend popped over for a chat while he was listening to a concert on his new radio. She went to the bathroom and returned grinning. "You kept that quiet," she said. He didn't know what she was talking about. "Two toothbrushes, eh? And don't you find that having two radios on at the same time, tuned to different stations, gives you a headache?"
The optician gave him some tests that showed nothing except a slight longsightedness, and advised a neurologist. The neurologist scratched her head--and his--and got nowhere. Then her son, who collected old radios, lent her a compendium of wireless design. She flicked through the Philco section and asked her patient to point out the model he had, the one that had vanished. It wasn't there, he said. There were a couple quite like it, either side of that blank on the page, but nothing that matched his.
Tests, tests, tests. No shadows on the scans, no untoward flickers on the meters, no pauses in reactions, no gaps in the normal neurological functioning of a standard human brain. Except that the picture of the radio caused nothing but an ambiguous flush of activity that died away as soon as it began.
Meanwhile, his mother's chair, his car, and the spare room had followed the radio into oblivion. Unable to afford a new car and unwilling to catch the bus, he lost his job. He felt the same way about that as everything else: mildly relieved but otherwise unconcerned.
Eventually, he was sitting in a room with a psychologist. "It might be neurological, it might not," said the doctor. "You've stopped seeing familiar things. You know that frogs can't see something unless it moves?" He did. "You can't see things that have merged into your personal background. They've burned out."
He thanked the doctor and left, amused at the man's conceit. Life was mercifully simple now, and the habits that had concerned him so much were slipping beneath the surface, just as they must do for everyone else. What did he care why this should be?
That evening, he went to brush his teeth. The toothbrush had gone--hadn't he bought that just a couple of months ago?--and he stared at the empty tumbler with the last touch of annoyance he would feel. Then he looked up, into the empty mirror. All that was in it was the room, and soon that was empty too.
Rupert Goodwins (RupertGo@aol.com) Ex-chief planner of the Tongan manned mission to Mars, international jewel thief and mild-mannered reporter, Rupert Goodwins writes about computers by day and behaves oddly at night. He lives in London, a large post-imperial city set in an alluvial clay bowl, but doesn't worry about it.
InterText stories written by Rupert Goodwins: "Little Acorn" (v6n4), "Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley" (v6n5), "Neon Sea Dreams" (v7n4), "The Year Before Sleep" (v8n1), "Amo, Mensa!" (v8n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Rupert Goodwins.