CHAPTER TEN

 

Girish O'Donnell sat upright in his leather-upholstered swivel chair and frowned down at the letter in his hand.  His young secretary, a Miss Yogini Patel, stared anxiously at him across the desk, pen in hand and notebook on lap.  She was waiting for the oracle, as she regarded her boss, to dictate his next remarks with his usual spontaneity.  But he seemed to be rather chewing the cud, and this surprised her.  What was going through his mind, she wondered?  Or was he simply re-reading the letter?  She coughed politely, as though to remind him of her presence, and it appeared to have the desired effect.  For he cleared his throat and, without looking up, continued with his dictation from where he had so mysteriously broken off:-

 

"....Although we appreciate your obvious concern relating to the rather cramped nature of the booths, we cannot reasonably undertake their enlargement at present ... nor for that matter in the foreseeable future (STOP).  Not only would it prove too costly, but any alteration to the size of the booths would inevitably lead to the museum itself becoming too cramped (STOP).  Indeed, it could result in our having to dispense with a number of exhibits, which would not, we feel, be in either ours or the public's best interests (STOP).  So, much as we sympathize with your problem, we are at present unable to adjust our facilities to suit you (STOP).  We will, however, bear your suggestion in mind should we ever be in a position to implement it in due course (STOP).  In the meantime, I hope you will not feel that you are being discriminated against (STOP AND CLOSE).

 

     Having said which, O'Donnell cast the letter to one side and, leaning back in his chair, shook his head from side to side in patent wonderment.  Never had he received such a complaint before and, in spite of his own fairly corpulent disposition, it quite amused him.  "Oh, the poor chump!" he cried, grinning sarcastically from cheek to cheek.  "Twenty-four bloody stones to live with and more fat on his bones than you and I put together, Yogini.  No wonder he couldn't fit into any of the booths!"

     "Dear me!" tittered Miss Patel sympathetically.

     "And he expected us to modify the size of them in order to suit his bulk!" exclaimed the Voice Museum's director anew, thrusting his arms into the air in mock exasperation.  "Really, whatever next?"

     "He must be on the stout side!" averred Miss Patel on a rising tide of tactful understatement.  "For the booths are over a metre wide."

     "They are indeed," O'Donnell confirmed.  "So his width must be somewhat in excess of that."  At which point he rubbed the palm of his left hand over his balding pate as though in astonishment, before leaning forwards across his desk.  "It just goes to show one never knows what kind of complaint to expect here," he continued, on a weary note.  "Perhaps we'll receive a letter from somebody who is too tall for the booths one of these days - somebody over seven feet."

     "That wouldn't surprise me," Miss Patel declared, as she made a slight adjustment to the position of the horn-rimmed spectacles which dangled precariously on her aquiline nose.  "Assuming the unfortunate person lacked the imagination or desire to get down on his knees."

     "Quite.  Now then, what else do we have here?"  He was just on the point of picking up another letter from his desk when the switchboard operator rang through to inform him that there were two people in reception by the names of Mr Byrne and Miss Field to see him.  "Ah, good!" he responded enthusiastically.  "Tell them I'll be down immediately."  He slammed the receiver back into place and stood up with a look of undisguised relief on his clean-shaven face.  They had come to his rescue in the nick of time!  He'd had enough of dictating letters for one day, quite enough!  So he dismissed Miss Patel without delay and hurried along, as best he could, the third-floor corridor to the stairs, the lift being temporarily out-of-order.

     Downstairs, a lot of people were milling around or queuing to pay their entrance fees in the reception area, but Mr O'Donnell quickly caught sight of his guests and approached them with a welcoming smile on his face.  "So glad you could come," he announced, stretching out a ringless right hand with which he shook each of their shaking hands in turn.

     "It's a pleasure to be here," said Sarah, more from politeness than actual experience.  She was wearing a black raincoat with the rim of a beige skirt showing beneath it and a pair of maroon stockings.  For his part, Timothy was dressed in what he liked to think of as one of his more radically theocratic outfits, with his favourite jeans tucked into a pair of white boots to balance out the centripetal bias of the waist and cuffs of his hooded zipper, which, on a day like today, was a match for any wet or windy inclemency the weather might hurl at one.  He looked every inch the thinking individual beside the dark-suited figure of Girish O'Donnell who, in concluding the formalities, inquired whether they would prefer to tour the museum first and record their voices later, or vice versa.

     "I think we'd like to tour the museum first," Timothy replied for both Sarah and himself.

     "Excellent, that suits me fine!" the director averred, and without further ado he immediately began to lead the way along to their left in the direction of the nearest room, which happened to be the British one.  "By the way," he added, as they came to a halt on its threshold, "you'll probably have an opportunity to meet Joe Handon later this afternoon, since he usually comes in on Thursdays to attend to outstanding business and have a chat with me."

     Sarah blushed violently and Timothy opened his mouth in surprise.  "Oh?" he responded.  "Does Joe, er, I mean Lord Handon regularly come to town, then?"

     "Of course!" O'Donnell declared.  "He attends the Lords not infrequently in his capacity as a Labour Peer, and has a town house in South Kensington.  He only stays at Rothermore at the weekends, as a rule, where, despite left-wing sympathies, he likes to shoot grouse or go fishing."

     "Yes, I've heard about his sporting preferences," Timothy admitted with a grimace, wondering whether the possession of a London house explained the absence of certain books from the viscount's library.  Perhaps he possessed a more up-to-date one in South Kensington?

     "Right then, let's get on with our tour, shall we?" O'Donnell suggested, and he pushed open the swing door that led into the British Room.

     Obediently, Sarah and Timothy followed on behind the portly figure of Mr O'Donnell and entered a medium-sized rectangular room in which five rows of transparent booths, rather reminiscent of telephone kiosks, stood in almost regimental formation facing and backing onto one another at a distance of about four yards.  There were ten such booths in each row, making for a total of some fifty in all, and they stood just over a yard apart, with a sufficiency of space in-between to allow their doors to slide back from their fronts on specially-designed rails.  The initial impression they made on each of O'Donnell's guests was, to say the least, pretty bizarre, and Timothy, in particular, was unable to prevent an amused response from distorting his facial features.  It was really quite beyond his wildest expectations!  And the sight of people standing in several of the booths with concentrated expressions on their faces seemed to him even more bizarre!  Other visitors, however, were pacing backwards and forwards in front of booths or standing just outside them and reading information plaques.  Some were even queuing to get into one.  It was more than a little bewildering at first!

     "As you'll probably recall from our discussion on the subject at Rothermore House, the British Room is exclusively dedicated to regional dialects throughout the country," O'Donnell reminded them, adopting a more authoritative tone of voice, "and contains, in its fifty recordings, a fair cross-section of what this island produces.  Unfortunately we don't possess every possible dialect here, but the selection we've made is fairly representative of all the principal cities and regions."  He led them across to the first booth on the left of the entrance which, at that moment, happened to be in use, and pointed out the button one had to press in order to activate its sliding door.  It was positioned towards the upper right-hand corner of the information plaque, at approximately chest height, and was painted red in order to be conspicuous.  "Ordinarily a single depression of this button will activate the door," he continued, "but whilst the booth is in use, as at present, the button is programmed not to respond.  You can press it as much as you like ..." and here O'Donnell demonstrated what he was saying by giving the button three vigorous presses "... but nothing will happen.  Only once the recording has run its preordained course, and the door slides open again, does it come back into use.  This of course prevents anyone from disturbing the occupant of the booth."

     "How very ingenious!" cried Sarah, with a suitably appreciative smile.  "Therefore you not only have to wait until the recording has run its course before you can get into the booth, you also have to wait until it has run its course before you can get out of the booth again?"

     "Precisely," the director confirmed.  "This prevents people from wandering in-and-out at random, setting a recording in motion by a press of the button which, as you'll have gathered, is dual purpose, and then abandoning it whilst it's underway, like a naughty schoolboy playing knock-down-ginger, or whatever the ruddy expression is.... The fact that a majority of our visitors tend to be schoolchildren or youths makes it imperative for us to take such precautions, as I'm sure you can appreciate.  However, since the average recording only lasts 2-3 minutes, there isn't any reason for us to fear that visitors are going to be demonstrably inconvenienced by, ah, enforced confinement in a booth.  If they don't like the particular recording or voice to which they're listening, they won't have to put up with it for very long, will they?  Besides, a perusal of the information plaque, prior to entry, would leave one in no doubt as to the recording's contents.  If that proves boring, one is under no obligation to proceed further.  It's as simple as that!"

     Whilst O'Donnell was saying this, the booth in front of which they were standing became vacant, as its former occupant - a tall, red-haired guy of vaguely Lawentian appearance - ambled off down the row in search of other intriguing recordings.  Timothy and Sarah were thus presented with an opportunity to 'sound out' this particular exhibit for themselves, though it was pretty clear, from the modest size of the booth, that they could only decently do so one at a time.  For his part, Timothy wasn't particularly keen to initiate proceedings, but Sarah, true to form, went ahead and pressed the button.  "Don't run away," she playfully remarked, just before the sliding door closed behind her.

     "We won't," O'Donnell promised, with a reassuring smile. And, turning to Timothy, he began to add fresh information to what had already been imparted concerning the general layout of the booths and their physical construction.  "We start here, in the first row, with selected regional accents from the south of England, beginning in the South East and continuing along to the broadest imaginable Cornish at the end of the row.  The second row is dedicated to East Anglia and part of the Midlands, the third to the rest of the Midlands and Wales, the fourth to the north of England, and, finally, on the far side of the room, we conclude with a row composed of the principal dialects of Scotland.  That just about sums up the regional vocal richness of the British!  As to the booths themselves, we have ensured that they're fully soundproofed, being fashioned from a new synthetic material called aquatex, which, as you can see, isn't unlike glass in appearance but, fortunately, is so much stronger.  Indeed, it's virtually break-proof as well.  You'd have to use a mighty big sledgehammer to smash this substance, assuming you ever wanted to try.  But the real advantage with aquatex resides in its ability to contain sound, and this in a room where there can be up to fifty recordings running at any given time is absolutely essential.  People have often remarked to me on how silent the Voice Museum actually is, and, paradoxically, that is indeed the case - except, of course, where such voices as ours are concerned!  Even by putting your ear right up against the booth you can't hear anything more than a faint mumble from the stereo speakers inside, which, as I think you may already have gathered, are positioned above the visitor's head.  Thus the sound comes down at one from above, thereby preventing the possibility of people, particularly young ones, tinkering with the speakers or covering them in odious graffiti.  Furthermore, it gives one more space in the booth or, putting it from our standpoint, has enabled us to design them on a slender basis, and so fit as many of them into each room as possible.  This is better for the museum of course, though, not surprisingly, it doesn't suit everybody."  And here O'Donnell briefly digressed to inform his guest of the letter he had just that day received from an unusually corpulent gentleman, whose physical constitution precluded him from fully availing himself of the museum's facilities.

     Timothy had to laugh outright at the mention of this and, emerging from the booth after her short spell with a Kent dialect, Sarah thought he was laughing at her.  "Did I really look that funny in there?" she asked in semi-rhetorical fashion.

     "You looked wonderful actually," Timothy reassured her, exaggerating.  "It was about someone else that I was laughing."  And he promised to tell her O'Donnell's story later on.  He didn't, however, notice the elderly gentleman to his right who, standing in front of the fourth booth along, must have imagined himself to be the target of Timothy's amusement, and was now staring at him in a most uncivil manner.  No doubt, the old sod's hearing was not what it used to be!

     Meanwhile Sarah had quickly recovered from her moment's perplexity and duly remarked on the high-quality sound coming from the stereo speakers.  "I heard every Canterbury word that was spoken," she smilingly revealed.

     "Good, then let's proceed a little farther, shall we?" the director suggested, leading them past the offended grey-head and on towards the end of the row, where he solemnly paused before the booth housing a West Country accent and briefly scanned its plaque.  "This is one of the room's most popular exhibits," he duly informed them, "and largely because the voice talks of cider and Cornish cream.  Perhaps you'd like to give it a try, Tim?"

     The young writer obligingly consented to the unenviable experience of two minutes aquatex claustrophobia with a dialect which was largely unintelligible or, at any rate, somewhat abstruse, and duly emerged, when his time was mercifully up, with a look of undisguised relief on his pallid face.  There had been a welter of 'oohs', 'ahs', and 'ers' in the recording, but nothing especially educative.  He was at pains, initially, to conceal his disappointment.  For he had no taste for cider, and rarely allowed himself the boil-producing luxury of cream, whatever its provenance.  It would have been more to his liking had the anonymous and evidently half-witted Cornish voice droned-on about synthetic hallucinogens, or the virtues of upward self-transcendence instead.  But he pretended, for O'Donnell's sake, to having been impressed by exhibit 10 and, as soon as circumstances would allow, switched the conversation to the mechanics of the recordings.  Was it fair to assume, for instance, that each exhibit had been recorded a number of times on any particular tape, and that the recordings accordingly followed on one behind the other as the button was depressed?

     "Yes, that's approximately the case," O'Donnell replied, as he led the way past a sleepy-looking attendant, who tacitly acknowledged him with a terse if deferential nod of his capped head, and on into the next room.  "Each time one presses the button and the door slides open, the recording is automatically engaged," he went on.  "There are usually from between 20-30 duplicated recordings on each tape, and when a tape reaches the end of its length, it is automatically rewound by a self-regulating device so as to be ready to start all over again.  With the most popular recordings, the automatic rewind may be called into operation as many as five times a day."

     "Five?" Sarah and Timothy exclaimed together.

     "Indeed!" O'Donnell confirmed.  "Although most of the anonymous recordings are listened to no more than ten times a day, which means that the self-regulating device isn't called into operation all that often.  As you can see here, for example, the booths are scarcely overworked."

     They were now standing in the middle of the small appendage to the British Room, in which the emphasis was on class rather than dialect.  To left and right of them the booths, some twenty in all, were mostly unoccupied, though at least half-a-dozen people besides themselves were either engaged in scrutinizing information plaques or wandering lethargically from booth to booth.  Every once in awhile a hint of amusement or incredulity would appear on their faces, only to be countered, in due course, by fresh absorption in a plaque or total loss of interest in its contents.  One old lady was heavily bent over information relating to the cultivated Oxford recording, which she duly found of sufficient interest to merit a press of the button.  The door immediately slid open and, straightening up with some difficulty, she shuffled inside with lorgnette in hand.

     "The Oxford exhibit is usually popular with old ladies," O'Donnell remarked sotto voce, as the sliding door quietly closed behind its latest victim.  "Reports tell me it sometimes gets listened to as many as twenty times a day, which, in an age when class distinctions aren't supposed to exist or to mean anything much any more, is really quite surprising, I find.  Only the cockney one to your left, Tim, can rival it for interest.  However, unless either of you particularly wish to lend an ear to one or another of the recordings in here, I should now like to show you our most popular room, which happens to be exclusively dedicated to the famous."

     "Oh, please do!" Sarah urged him, and, since her companion had no desire to dally any longer in such a class-bound room, they at once set off for the Room of the Famous next-door.  A herd of young schoolboys exiting it at that moment prevented them, however, from immediately gaining access to its prized possessions via an unhampered entry.  But as soon as the stampede had subsided, O'Donnell proudly led the way through its twin doors into what was, without doubt, the most crowded of the ground-floor rooms.

     "Phew!" gasped Timothy at the sight of all the bodies buzzing round booths, like flies around jam pots.  "This is more than a little surprising!"

     "To be sure," O'Donnell responded, smiling affably.  "But it becomes less so once you begin to familiarize yourself with the exhibits, which, to say the least, are of considerable interest.  People come here from all over the world just to visit this room and hear the voices of their literary or musical or artistic or cinematic heroes.  And I have received numerous letters congratulating me on the superb quality of the recordings."

     "So you don't get only bad letters," said Sarah, with a mischievous smile.

     "Oh no, the great majority are good!" O'Donnell declared.  "If I gave you the contrary impression at Rothermore House, it was only because Lady Pamela prefers to hear about the bad ones.  She thrives on scandal, you know.  But don't let's discuss that now.  Let's take a look at what we have before us, shall we?"

     As in the British Room, the booths here were arranged in rows backing or facing (depending on your viewpoint) onto one another at a distance of about four yards, the only significant difference being that in this room the rows were twice as long, so that there were exactly a hundred exhibits from which to choose.  The first row, they were informed, was exclusively dedicated to literary people, the second to composers, singers, and artists, the third to film stars, the fourth to sportsmen, and the fifth to a miscellany of the famous, including politicians, clerics, scientists, inventors, and soldiers.  At a glance, it wasn't easy to tell which row was attracting the most attention; for there was no shortage of attention in any of them.  But since there were more schoolboys standing in front of the sportsmen's booths than actually standing in them, it soon became apparent that, as far as they were concerned, the famous sportsmen had a monopoly over everyone else - film stars not excepted!

     The first row, however, was more to Timothy's liking and, to his relief, it was along this that O'Donnell led Sarah and himself, pointing out the various names en route, which included T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Aldous Huxley.  A well-known photograph of the writer was appended to the information plaque in each case, thereby assisting the visitor's memory recall the face of the man whose voice was stored on tape.  Unfortunately it wasn't possible for Timothy to study the plaques in any great detail, since O'Donnell was obviously keen on showing his guests round the museum as quickly as possible and on showing them, moreover, as much of it as possible, and so led the way past the booths at a fairly uniform pace.  Only where the Huxley booth was concerned, however, did the young writer make a determined effort to read the substance of the recording, his self-willed absorption duly obliging O'Donnell to terminate his advance a few yards farther along.  For her part, Sarah halted beside Timothy and peered over his shoulder at the plaque in question.  She didn't know all that much about Huxley herself, and wasn't particularly interested in the information concerning him, but thought she might as well offer her fellow-guest a little psychological support.

     "Ah yes, I thought you'd be interested in that one," sighed O'Donnell, reluctantly retracing his steps until he was more or less level with the inquisitive pair.  "You probably recall my telling you, at Rothermore House, about the highly critical letter I received from a senior churchman concerning Huxley's use of, ah, orientally-inspired terminology detrimental, so it was alleged, to our Christian integrity."

     "Yes," Timothy admitted, with a wry smile.  "Are you still intending to replace this recording with a less ... controversial one in due course?"

     "I expect so.  Although, personally, I don't have anything against it, and am quite convinced that a majority of our visitors wouldn't, either.  After all, what does it matter if Huxley says Clear Light of the Void instead of the Holy Spirit?  They amount to approximately the same thing, don't they?"

     Timothy politely nodded his head and said: "Except that the Holy Spirit obviously has more relevance to those of us who respect the Christian tradition.  I, for one, prefer the term 'spirit' to 'light', because it seems to me closer to the essence of ultimate divinity, which is transcendent spirit - pure, and hence holy, spirit.  But, frankly, it doesn't make much difference which term one uses, so long as one knows to what one is referring.... Curiously, a lot of people who turn to the Orient and adopt such Buddhist terms are unaware of the parallels which exist with Occidental religion.  They mistakenly imagine that Christianity is incapable of expanding beyond itself into a transcendental framework of post-Christian mysticism.  One has to adopt Buddhism or Hinduism, in their misguided opinion, and take it from there."

     "The cult of the East," O'Donnell averred, nodding sagely.

     "Now although there are undoubtedly aspects of Eastern religion which are worth knowing about and taking seriously," Timothy rejoined, "there are also aspects of it which are simply antiquated or misguided, and that's something Huxley didn't always emphasize.  He took too many Eastern illusions seriously, including, in my opinion, those relating to reincarnation.  Not to mention a posthumous merging with the Clear Light of the Void."

     "You mean life after death," suggested Sarah, who had the advantage over O'Donnell of having been present in the drawing-room at Rothermore House when Timothy first delivered his theological exposition, the previous week.

     "Quite so!" he confirmed.  "I only believe in the eternity of transcendent bliss which should result from the climax of evolution, not in an already-established Heaven that exists either by dint of its own making or as a consequence of the spiritual contributions, as it were, of certain transcendentally precocious members of the human race, including Christ and the Buddha.  Thus, for me, God is something in the making, not an already-existent fact!"

     "He's an atheist who is yet in favour of God and is, to some extent, a man of God," Sarah revealed, for O'Donnell's puzzled benefit.

     "How extraordinary!" exclaimed the director, raising his brows in manifest surprise.  "Perhaps you'll do us the honour of recording some of your religious views later, when we get down to business."

     "As a matter of fact I have prepared a reading along those lines," Timothy revealed, blushing faintly in response to the conservative opposition he conjectured it would arouse.

     "Excellent!" O'Donnell enthused.  "Then I shall be delighted to hear it, since every advance in free thought is a further nail in the coffin of natural determinism and enslavement to the given."  At which point he playfully slapped the writer on the back and offered him an encouraging wink.  "Now what about you, Sarah?" he asked, turning his attention to the smartly-dressed young opera singer.  "Have you prepared your little speech as well?"

     "Indeed I have!" she revealed enthusiastically, as though from psychological contagion.  "Although, by contrast with Timothy's, it'll be largely autobiographical."

     "Good, that suits me fine!"  The director hesitated a moment, as if unsure what to say next, then, realizing that time was slipping by and the museum no more than part-toured, he suggested they continue on their way, which Timothy begrudgingly agreed to do, although he hadn't quite read to the end of the Huxley plaque and would have been grateful for the opportunity of listening to the great man's voice.  No doubt, such a heavenly experience could wait until another time - possibly after his own recording session.  For it seemed that, despite his show of hospitality, O'Donnell was unwilling to wait about outside, amid the swirling throng of noisy schoolchildren, while his guests amused themselves in the booths. 

     However, Sarah was more determined than Timothy to sate her curiosity where at least one recording of the famous was concerned, and accordingly insisted on their paying a visit to the Maria Callas booth in row two.  As luck would have it, the Callas was vacant at that moment, so she immediately pressed the button and betook herself to the booth's interior without bothering to scan the plaque first.  She evidently knew more or less what to expect from the renowned singer's autobiographical sketch.

     "A charming young woman," O'Donnell opined, as soon as she was safely sealed off from them.

     "To be sure," Timothy agreed.

     "And she sings so perfectly, don't you think?"

     "From what little I've heard, yes, I do."

     "Joe Handon is rather fond of her, you know."

     Timothy's face paid host to another blush.  "He is?" he responded, feigning innocence as best he could.  "In what kind of way?"

     "Oh, just friendly," O'Donnell averred.  "Playfully amorous.  Nothing serious, so far as I know."

     "I see," sighed Timothy, whose voice sounded a shade embittered in spite of the noble endeavour he was making to conceal his personal interest.  "And is Sarah, er, fond of him too?"

     "That's something you'll have to ask her, old man.... By the way, what did you think of Geraldine last week?" the director asked.

     Timothy didn't know quite what to think, but opted to reply: "She seemed quite pleasant.  Why do you ask?"

     "Oh, just simple curiosity.  Some people take to her, others don't.  I myself think she's very attractive and intelligent with it.  But, well, not everyone is of a like persuasion."

     "Like Lawrence Gowling, for instance?"

     "Possibly."

     It was clear that O'Donnell had no desire to expand on that, so Timothy said: "I must confess to not having got on too well with her mother, though."

     "No?  But then a man of your intellectual cast could hardly expect to, could he?  She is rather a bitch, I'll admit, which, between you and I, is one of the reasons why her husband is inclined to fish around a bit, as it were, for alternative company, if you follow me.  He doesn't get on too well with her, either.... Ah, here's Sarah again!"

     The young opera star emerged from the booth with a radiant smile across her face and confessed, at once, to having found the recording just to her taste.  "It was so nice to hear Callas speak for a change," she said.  "One begins to understand the kind of fascination this museum must have for people."

     Its principal director accepted her compliments graciously, before setting his guests under way again, round past the remaining booths in the second row and on through the crowd of schoolboys who thronged the narrow isle between the front of the third and the back of the fourth rows, past the glamorous dead film stars.  "I told you at Rothermore House that Marilyn Monroe's voice was very popular with young people, didn't I?" he joked, as they squeezed their way through a group of High School students who queued impatiently for a chance to get into her booth.  "One is trapped here between the Scylla of sex and the Charybdis of violence.  I should never have obliged you to traverse this part of the room, so please forgive me."  He was of course partly joking, but life was rather more tempestuous here, and Timothy reflected that the room could have been better arranged by having fewer rows and more space between them.  Perhaps that was something for the future?

     Once at the end of the third row, however, they decided against braving the remaining two rows but continued on towards the far exit, which led to the lift and stairs to the next floor.  There, as before, a solitary attendant acknowledged them in passing, though he was less sleepy-looking than the one in the British Room.

     "We have an attendant on duty in each of the rooms, so as to provide a kind of on-the-spot information service relating to the layout of the museum and simultaneously keep a watchful eye on things," O'Donnell proudly revealed, as they began to climb the stairs.  "With so many schoolkids about, one can't afford to take any chances."

     "But surely, if the booths are automatic and break-proof?" Timothy objected, showing genuine puzzlement.

     "Ah, it's not so much the booths themselves as to what may happen inside or outside of them which prompts our concern," the director replied, leading his visitors up to the first floor.  "Sometimes the buttons are tampered with, for example, and the booths put out of order.  We must have an attendant on duty to ensure that, where possible, this doesn't happen.  He must also supervise the queuing and prevent people from blocking the isles or otherwise making a public nuisance of themselves - two things which the attendant in the room we have just passed through appears to have neglected today.  And, of course, he must report any malfunctioning of the booths to me personally, and ensure that the casualty of either public abuse or private breakdown is temporarily marked with an out-of-order sign - like, unfortunately, the one on the lift downstairs, for which my humble apologies.  But there have been one or two tasks thrust upon our attendants in recent weeks which, I regret to say, were most odious.  I refer, in particular, to the removal of a number of so-called stink bombs which were placed in various booths by, ah, certain delinquents whose sole objective was to cause any subsequent and unsuspecting visitor to them as much nasal inconvenience as possible!"

     Timothy and Sarah wrinkled-up their noses in manifest disgust and raised their brows in horrified amazement.  "How awful!" Sarah elected to exclaim with verbal relish.

     "Especially if you're unfortunate enough to get trapped with the pong for two minutes, as I believe happened to a couple of slow-reacting elderly people, who must have activated the stink bombs by standing on them," O'Donnell speculated.  "By the time they realized what was afoot, the sliding door had closed in their wake and they were obliged to endure the most excruciating nasal torment imaginable."

     "Oh, Girish!" protested Sarah, making an emphatic grimace.

     "Forgive me for telling you," O'Donnell rejoined.  "But such irresponsible acts of callous delinquency might be far more frequent, did we not take the precaution of placing an attendant in each of the rooms.  His very presence there is normally sufficient to deter most of the would-be villains from pursuing their vile intentions!"

     They had reached the first floor and thereupon proceeded, as before, through each of the rooms in quick succession, beginning with the Asian and continuing, via the African, to the European and South American rooms on the far side of the building.  Here, too, the booths were laid-out in a similar fashion to those on the ground floor, with approximately an equal number in each room.  On the whole, things were somewhat quieter than in the Room of the Famous, since the voices recorded here, being anonymous, held little interest for the majority of schoolchildren and were only sampled, as a rule, by people with a special interest in languages, which included a number of foreign visitors and indigenous students.  As Lady Handon had explained over dinner, the previous week, one could experience a wide selection of languages in the space of a few minutes or, at any rate, in fairly rapid succession, and this seemed to have a distinct appeal for some people.

     On the evidence before them the European Room was the most popular of the first-floor rooms, attracting visitors not only from the Continent but from just about every other continent on earth as well, and as Timothy and Sarah passed through it in O'Donnell's corpulent wake they encountered a party of Japanese tourists who, to judge from their intent expressions, were experiencing considerable pleasure from listening to an assortment of European tongues.  In several of the booths, notably those dedicated to Greek and German recordings, small sallow faces with glittering white teeth peered out at one in rapt amusement or stunned incredulity at the sounds they were hearing.  A long queue of Japanese had formed in front of the Russian booth, which, for some reason, seemed to intrigue them the most.  Amateur photographers trained their cameras here and there on the occupants of various booths, avid, no doubt, for a visual record of this extraordinary aural experience to take back home with them.  It seemed that there was nothing comparable in Japan at present.  Nor, for that matter, anywhere else on earth, either!

     O'Donnell smiled his way through the rooms with mounting self-satisfaction, like a predator taking stock of his prey.  Business was pretty good today, he informed his guests, even though most of the overseas Christmas visitors had already gone home by now.  "Our busiest time is, of course, the summer," he continued, as they passed through the remaining room, where a variety of South American dialects in Spanish and Portuguese or even a jumble of both was stocked.  "Then we get literally thousands of tourists here, especially during the peak period of July-August.  After that, things begin to simmer down a little - at least as far as tourists are concerned.  For we have no shortage of schoolkids, as you've seen.  The only time we get a break from them is, of course, during school holidays, when the tourists take over.  Nevertheless life is never so busy here as in July and August, when whole coach-loads of foreign visitors descend upon us like a plague of locusts, ravaging the booths one by one.  Whether we shall fare as well in the future, after this idea catches on elsewhere, remains to be seen.  However, now that we've got to the end of this floor, let me introduce you to the rooms above."

     And this he duly did, starting with the Australasian Room, in which a cross-section of New Zealand, Tasmanian, and Australian dialects were housed, and continuing to the North American Room, where a variety of Canadian and US dialects awaited the inquisitive ear.  "Americans are especially keen on this room," he rather matter-of-factly informed them, as they ambled between plaques bearing the subject-matter of the respective recordings.  And, sure enough, a number of booths were at that very moment occupied by visitors from the United States, who stood with amused or ironic expressions on their chubby faces as they listened to one example or another of their compatriots' voices.  Schoolchildren also appeared to take a special interest in this room, and more than a few had gathered outside a booth dedicated to the representative voice of southern Texas.  Nearby, a north Texan recording attracted similar interest.  "Popular prejudice in this country tends to the assumption that all Americans sound alike," O'Donnell remarked, while scanning the room's visitors.  "But the variety of dialects gathered here would certainly not substantiate that assumption.  On the contrary, there is more difference between, say, a typical New York accent and a typical Los Angles one than at first meets the ear.  And when you hear some of the accents from Miami or New Orleans, and then compare them with those from Detroit or Chicago, well, you can never again fall victim to the delusion of considering Americans vocally stereotyped."

     "No, I guess not," said Timothy out of politeness.  For he had never fallen victim to that anyway.  Even then, while they were standing there, a group of Americans could be heard talking in different accents.  It was hardly necessary for one to venture into a booth, reflected Timothy, to hear a yank's voice!

     However, O'Donnell, himself partly of American extraction, had no intention of dallying there any longer, since he was determined that his companions should shortly get on with their own recordings, and so led the way beyond the North American Room at what, for him, was almost a gallop.  The next room was the smallest on the second floor, containing no more than forty booths arranged in four rows of ten, and was relatively quiet, with just a handful of people wandering around it.  Its recordings, O'Donnell informed them, were taken from several of the world's small islands, and were studies in both language and dialect.  A black man, evidently of West Indian origin, was listening to a Jamaican dialect as they passed through - the recording representative of Jamaica being one of several exhibits of Caribbean voices.  Ahead of them, a locked door was duly unlocked by O'Donnell and they passed into a room containing a number of new booths arranged in the more standard five-row sequence.  "We haven't yet opened this room to the public," O'Donnell explained, dutifully relocking the door behind them.  "For there is still some work to be done in wiring the booths to their buttons.  But when we do open it, I guarantee you that it'll be one of the museum's most sought-after attractions!"

     "Presumably this is the Room of the Infamous you briefly mentioned at Rothermore House," Sarah conjectured, as her eye caught the name 'Adolf Hitler' printed in bold gothic type on the nearest of the information plaques.

     "Indeed it is!" confirmed the director, nodding briefly.  "Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Stalin, Mussolini - these are just a handful of the infamous people whose pre-recorded voices we've acquired for the public's benefit."

     "I'm rather glad these booths aren't functioning at present," declared Timothy, for whom the room seemed, even at this stage, to have a certain malevolent atmosphere about it.

     "One fancies that Hitler's booth will get overworked," said Sarah, as they reached the exit door opposite and then stood waiting impatiently a moment whilst O'Donnell lustily thrust his key into its virgin lock.

     "Yes, especially where schoolkids are concerned," he conceded, with a wry smile.

     Emerging safely on the other side, they began to climb the stairs to the third floor.  The guided tour, it appeared, had run its maundering course and O'Donnell was now eager to lead them straight to the recording studio where, following some liquid refreshment, they could get on with their appointed tasks.  The studio in question was next-door to his secretary's office, to the left of the stairs, and contained a couple of soft chairs, a table, and some expensive-looking recording equipment.  In all, a very business-like little place with hardly enough room for more than a couple of people.  Not a sound from the outside world could be heard there.  For the walls, door, and windows had been thoroughly soundproofed, thereby preventing even the loudest external noise from interfering with the studio's function.  Outside in the corridor, however, the clicking sounds of a variety of business machines, including typewriters, betrayed the administrative essence of the third floor.  A few voices could also be heard from time to time, but they were more remote, coming from the far end of the corridor.  Nearby, a coffee machine stood idle, and it was towards this that O'Donnell next led his prospective recording stars, offering to pay for their coffees himself.  "There's a WC just along there on your left," he informed them, once they had accepted his offer, "so you needn't worry about overloading yourselves."

     "That's a relief!" joked Timothy ironically, and, together, they sipped their coffees in silence awhile, until O'Donnell, mindful of their real purpose for being there, suggested that a start be made on the recordings as soon as possible, since time was ticking by and there were other things for him to attend to that afternoon.

     "I'll record you one at a time," he added, after a short pause.  "So who's first?"

     "Ladies before gentlemen," said Timothy in ironic deference to his companion, who, to his surprise, graciously accepted it.

     "Good, then that settles the matter," O'Donnell concluded.  "If you like, Tim, you can wait in the lounge opposite, where you'll find a plentiful supply of educative reading matter.  And if, by any chance, old Joe Handon shows up, he'll be sure to pop in and see you, being interested to hear what you think of our museum."

     Sure enough, Lord Handon did show up, interrupting an article on modern sculpture upon which Timothy had duly engaged his reading fancy, compliments of the numerous arts magazines that, curiously for a museum of this nature, lay stacked up in the lounge.  "Delighted to see you again!" he averred, extending a bony hand for the writer to shake.  "I trust you're now familiar with the layout of the place?"

     "More or less," Timothy admitted, smiling politely.

     With handshake completed, Lord Handon took a seat opposite in one of the leather armchairs there and proceeded to light himself a mild cigar.  His light-grey suit complemented his hair, just as his dark-blue tie matched his eyes.  There was a verbal silence while he puffed on the cigar, which seemed to take-up all his attention, before he got round to asking Timothy, in a fairly guarded tone-of-voice, whether his visit to Rothermore House had been enjoyable?

     "Oh, very much so," the writer replied, succumbing to a degree of impulsive overstatement on the spur of the moment.

     "Even with my wife in flagrant opposition to your religious views?" Lord Handon queried.

     "In spite of that."

     "And in spite of my house and grounds, I take it?"

     "Well ..."  It was awkward for Timothy to admit as much outright; for there could be no doubt that the viscount had put two-and-two together in the meantime, and drawn the relevant conclusions.

     "Perhaps you'd feel less out-of-your-depth in my town house," Lord Handon suggested, coming to his rescue.  "I shall be home next Wednesday evening, so if you've no prior engagements, why not come over and have dinner with us - my daughter and I, that is?  I'd welcome a further opportunity to discuss your latest theories with you, and without running the risk of upsetting my fiercely fundamentalist wife, who will be down in Sussex.  My daughter is spending some time in London before returning to Oxford, so she'll be the only other female there.  And as you may already have realized, she's much less inclined to quibble with such views as you express than is my wife.  So are you game?"

     The expression sounded somewhat inept to Timothy, and the prospect of another visit to a Handon property not a little daunting.  But, more from politeness than a genuine desire to accept the invitation, he nodded his head and warmly thanked his prospective host.

     "Not at all!" the viscount responded, smiling reassuringly.  "It'll be a pleasure to have someone as enlightened and intellectually precocious as yourself to talk to for a change.  I get more than my share of conservative bores and spineless lickspittles to dinner, believe me!  Especially from my own age-group.... No, I like to hear the views of younger people, even when I can't personally relate to them.  Although I think I can relate to most of your religious views - at least up to a point.  But we can discuss that later.  At the moment, I expect you're anxious to get into the recording studio and put some of them down on tape, eh?"

     "Yes, I guess so," Timothy admitted.  "Though I'm also aware that whatever I say won't be heard by the public until after my death, which could be as many as 30-40 years hence."

     "I shouldn't let that bother you," Lord Handon advised him, blowing smoke.  "After all, the essential thing is to get your voice on tape at this stage in your career, in order that we can have a recording of you at thirty, or whatever it is.  Later recordings would also follow.  But if, by ill-luck, something were to happen to you in the meantime ... to cut your life short, we'd have this recording to-hand, and that's the important thing!  So it isn't really a futility for you to record now.... However, let's not be pessimistic.  Let's rather assume that you'll live to be a ripe old grey-head like myself, with three or four separate recordings behind you."

     There wasn't time, however, for Lord Handon to say anything else.  For the door suddenly opened and a relieved Sarah Field burst into the room with a broad smile on her face.  "Go on, Tim, it's your turn!" she cried, holding the door open for him.  With scarcely-concealed misgivings he got to his feet and reluctantly left her to the viscount, less because he had come ill-prepared for his recording than because he feared that Lord Handon would seek to renew his intimacies with Sarah no sooner than he was out of sight, and this worried him slightly.

     However, he didn't let that interfere with his recording obligations and, before long, he had knuckled down, under O'Donnell's calm guidance, to his appointed task, reading from the prepared document in his hands the basis for his current religious views and the fact that, for him, life really was a sort of struggle from the Devil to God, as from alpha to omega, which pitted the freedom of self-realization against the enslavement to worship.  Not that one couldn't distinguish, he went on, between effectively divine and diabolic alternatives on the alpha plane, as it were, of traditional religion, since there was, after all, a distinction between what was believed to be the central star of the Galaxy and the sun, as between the central star and revolving stars in general.  But pedantic distinctions of that order notwithstanding, those who, through self-realization, aspired towards the Divine Omega, the ultimate level of divinity, were, willy-nilly, obliged to turn their back on the Alpha.  In which case it was just as well to debunkingly lump both alpha diabolic and divine together anyway, since they were equally irrelevant to an omega-oriented liberation, and clinging to the Divine Alpha, or what was taken for such, wouldn't assist the development of inner truth but, on the contrary, simply dilute and impede it ... in the name of power or strength, the 'divine' virtue of the Alpha, with particular reference, in Timothy's estimation, to the central star of the Galaxy, the cosmic source from which, wittingly or unwittingly, the power-based concept of 'The Almighty' had been extrapolated, as the more totalitarian of the early peoples moved from the stars in general to one star in particular and thus, effectively, from centrifugal polytheism to (relatively speaking) centripetal monotheism, the Many to the One, albeit still within the necessarily primitive framework of the Alpha.

     As to those who thought fundamentalist theology had no basis in or connection with the Cosmos at all, said Timothy, by now considerably warming to his chosen subject, they were simply guilty of ignorance and superficiality, since religion was more than just a figment of the imagination, and it couldn't have survived had not its principal divine and diabolic protagonists been derived, through theological extrapolation, from cosmic sources - in Timothy's view, the Galaxy's central star and the sun.... Though that applied more to Old Testament theology, he maintained, than to Christianity, which, appertaining to the New Testament, had sought to accommodate a 'Son of God', namely Christ, and was thus less cosmic than humanistic, with, in all probability, a less-elevated alpha God, namely the Father, and a less-elevated alpha Devil, namely the Antichrist, since no cosmic contiguity could be inferred to exist between the central star of the Galaxy and the Earth, corresponding to the Mother, and consequently it appeared that Christian theology had been obliged to lower alpha divinity from the stellar to the solar plane - in reality, that of the Alpha Diabolic from an objective, or Judaic, standpoint - in order to accommodate the Earth and thus, by implication, a lunar Son, the moon always equivalent to a child in relation to 'Mother Earth'.  At least this seemed, on deeper reflection, the underlying implications of having a 'Son of God'.  Though Timothy was also aware that Christianity had been obliged to accommodate the Father to the phallic worship of pagan precedent, the 'dark gods of the loins' in Lawrentian parlance, in which case it seemed that the Blessed Trinity was less alpha and omega with a worldly, or humanistic, deity coming in-between ... than co-existentially humanistic on the basis of phallus, heart, and mind, or body, soul, and spirit, with the Father symbolic of the body, Christ of the soul, and the Holy Ghost of the spirit, albeit a spirit that was less alpha or omega than humanistic and, hence, rather more consciously perceptual (fantasies) and conceptual (thoughts) than either subconsciously or superconsciously extreme, as germane, so he contended, to that which, rooted in alpha objectivity, had preceded the Christian civilization, and that which, centred in omega subjectivity, would hopefully one day supersede it. 

     In fact, it was probably less correct to speak in evolutionary terms from alpha to omega, as Timothy generally preferred to do out of a literary need to simplify, than in devolutionary terms from the Alpha to the world, and thence in evolutionary terms from another point in the world, necessarily contrary to the first point, towards the Omega that lay beyond it ... in the 'Kingdom of Heaven' which, as Christ Himself taught, lay within, and could therefore only be reached through self-realization of, presumably, a meditative order.

     Such was the general nature, give and take a few political diversions of the sort which were guaranteed to infuriate those clerics who believed the Church should stay out of politics instead of coming down fairly and squarely on the side of justice and the people's freedom struggles in general, of Timothy's voice recording, and by the time the writer had finished reading from his notes, O'Donnell was scratching his head and wondering whether this was the sort of material that could in fact be used in his booths in future, and whether it wasn't likely to arouse more opposition from vested interests than even Huxley had done, given the radically transcendental and even gnostic nature of the bulk of its paradoxical subject-matter which, despite certain contradictions and inconsistencies, pointed man towards a completely new order of religious moralizing which left no room for concepts like the Creator whatsoever.  Nevertheless, he was impressed by Timothy's intellectual and spiritual depth, and warmly congratulated him on his contribution to the Voice Museum, which, so he gallantly assured him, would extend freethinking at the expense of natural determinism as never before!

     For his part, Timothy simply smiled and bowed his head.  This world, he knew, was not cut-out for people like himself, but only for liberals, or amoral people who kept in touch, no matter how intermittently, with the Alpha, and he was under no illusions as to the difficulty of the struggle to defeat strength in order that truth, and truth alone, could come fully into its own and receive the recognition it ultimately deserved, and he, the self-styled thinker of thinkers, the idealistic philosopher king, along with it.  But until he sat on the world's throne, so to speak, in the name of heavenly salvation, his amoral enemies would continue to sit on it and for very different, if not diametrically opposite, reasons.  That much was certain!

 

 

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