Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Tower of Baker

(with apologies to José Saramago)


He woke. Another day.

Time to get up, said the clock. The space beside him was empty. He could hear his wife in the kitchen below already, preparing breakfast for himself and the kids. The radio was on. Radio 4.

Time to get up! cried his bladder, sharply.

He swung his stiff legs out from under the duvet. As he sat up, he broke wind, wiped the crust from his eyes, and cleared his throat. Christ, that sounded bad, he thought. I'd better not be coming down with a bad chest or something. Not that he felt congested. But when he cleared his throat again, and coughed for good measure, it sounded different from normal. Lower. It definitely was not right.

He went to the bathroom. Just as he always did, he began to hum to himself as he carried out his morning constitutional. But after a few bars, he stopped. It did not sound as it should. In fact, there was something eerie about it, as if the sound did not quite belong to him. It was almost as if someone, or something, was borrowing his throat. Or worse, although it was nonsense of course, that his throat was not his to call his own any more.

Looking at himself in the mirror as he shaved, he thought for a moment that he caught a strange look in his eyes: a glint perhaps. Mischevious, childlike. But also dangerous. Exciting! Then it was gone and he just looked nervous. And he was. Something was happening and he did not like it.

His hand vibrated with tiny shakes. He cut himself and let out a cry. The cry was far more worrying to him than the already bloody cut on his right cheek. For the cry was not the usual yelp he let out when he cut himself shaving. It was deep and long. And loud: very loud.

His wife ran up the stairs. 'What is it?' she said, panicked. The howl had penetrated even the sound of heated discussion on the Today programme.

'Nothing, I cut myself...' He could not finish the sentence he had started without thinking.

His wife knocked on the bathroom door and, impatient, opened it.

‘Are you OK? You sound a bit funny. Jesus, that cut's pretty bad.'

He was scared to speak.

'What's wrong?' she said quietly, wetting a cloth to dab his face.

'My voi...' Again, he could not continue.

Your voice is different,' she said.

'I know, I don't know what's happening,' he replied, in a voice rich with a gravitas it had never previously possessed: each syllable precisely annunciated, the vowels full and long. A voice of mystery. Otherness. Nevertheless hinting at a love of adventure and an unmistakable sense of fun. Yet it still communicated his own fear and bewilderment. It still functioned as a voice.

She shook her head. 'You sound like...'

He knew what she was trying to say. Just as she was, he was feeling something calling from his childhood. Something ingrained, deep down, from frequent exposure. Weekly. Saturday teatime.

'Yes,' he said, 'I sound like... Tom Baker.'

It was true. He could no longer speak with the voice that was once his own. Out of his throat now came that of Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.

The epidemic had begun.


He, the first victim of the epidemic, sat with his wife in the doctor's waiting room. He had let his wife do the talking to the receptionist. She said that he had completely lost his voice, which in a way, he had.

Opposite them in the waiting room was a mother with a small boy, six years old or so. He was screaming into thin air, while she flicked through a copy of Take a Break. Every so often she would slap his arm, saying: 'What did I say? What. Did. I. Say?'

To the right, an old man sat in his anorak, hunched forward with his hands pressed. He looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, worried. Further along was a young woman, barely out of her teens. Pretty; fashionable. She was there to see the nurse. Soon a door opened and the nurse popped her head out and called for her. The girl disappeared inside.

The doctor stepped out of his office and called a name. It was the old man's turn first. Still with the worried look on his face, he held his anorak closed tight as he made his way past, eyeing the man and his wife with suspicion as he did so.

Another man came in, spoke to the receptionist, and sat down. Young. Baseball hat and bomber jacket. A threat implied in every movement. He stared at the wall in front of him, and if he was even aware that the man and his wife were there, he did not show it.

The old man came out of the surgery, a big smile on his face. Soon after the doctor called the man's name. 'Do you want me to come in with you?' asked his wife. The man nodded.

The doctor was young also, barely thirty. The man knew as soon as he saw him that he would not be able to help him. 'Now, what can I do for you?'

The man said nothing at first. His wife began to explain, but he interrupted. This was something that could only be communicated by him speaking, and letting the doctor hear his voice - or at least, the voice he now had. 'It's my voice,' he said, 'it's gone... wrong.'

'Sounds all right to me,' said the doctor, 'very nice. In fact I'd say it's one of the most interesting voices I've heard in some time.'

'Yes, but it's not mine.'

'I don't follow, sorry.'

'I don't normally talk like this. This is not my voice.'

'Well, it is yours, but you might have an infection that is making it sound a little different. I'm sure it will pass -'

'No you don't understand, it really isn't my voice. I know because it's somebody else's.'

'Well,' said the doctor, 'if it's not yours, whose is it?'

'Tom Baker.'

'Is this someone I should know?'

'Tom Baker. Doctor Who.'

'Doctor Who? Isn't he Scottish in real life? I don’t watch it myself -'

'No, the proper Doctor Who, from the Seventies. Tom Baker was the fourth Doctor. The best one. He had a big floppy hat and scarf, curly hair, and... he talked like this!'

'Ah, I see,' said the doctor, 'a bit before my time I'm afraid. I remember it being on when I was a nipper in the Eighties with that man dressed up like he was going to play cricket but I never watched it because, well, it looked... not that good. I’ve heard the new one's great though.'

'It’s ok, but Tom Baker was the best,' said the man. 'Anyway, what's going on with my voice? Why am I talking like this?'

'Well, let's have a look, shall we?'

The doctor felt the man's throat and shone a light in his mouth.

'Well, I can't see any swelling. I'm going to have to refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. But, if they don't find anything, I'd like you to talk to someone else.'

'A psychiatrist.'

'Yes, that's right. It's just a possibility though. Most likely it's an infection.'

The doctor wrote a note in his pad, typed on his computer, printed out a form and gave it to the man, shaking his hand.

What do I do, the man thought to himself as he left the surgery. I can't get on with things talking like Tom Baker...

That night, while the man sat at home fretting, making his wife take all phone calls, and working up to telling his children that he now had the voice of a Seventies TV star, the girl from the waiting room was in a bar, on the way to a club with her friends.

'So anyway I said to him yeah, if you don't want to see me that's fine but don't be a wanker about it, know what I mean? And he's like, I'm not being a wanker and I was like yeah you are you're being a right fucking wanker actually but he wasn't having it, and I'm like, I'm like, I'm like...' She had to stop herself speaking. For all her friends were looking at her, their mouths open. As she had been talking, her voice had changed. She was now speaking with the voice of a man: the syllables well-annunciated; the vowels long, rich, and deep. She was speaking with the voice of Tom Baker.

In another part of the city, in a flat on the eighth floor of a tower block, the youth in the baseball cap was inhaling from a homemade bong with some acquaintances. 'Good blow, man,' he mumbled, and coughed. 'Yeah, fucking sic,' said the voice of Tom Baker, as if in agreement, lilting gleefully as it boomed across the room.

In the living room of a terraced council house, the child was still screaming into thin air.

'What did I say?' shouted the mum back at it. 'What. Did. I. Say?' The child stopped screaming for a second, shocked by the sudden masculine qualities his mum's voice had suddenly attained. It started screaming again. But it was the scream of a man. A terrible, horrifying sound.

Alone in his house, the old man said nothing all night. He was not to know that if he had, it would have been with the voice of Tom Baker.

The doctor was dining out with the receptionist when his voice changed. He had cheated on his wife three times with her, but for the time being it seemed as if it was all over: not least because, as his mistress hurriedly fled the restaurant and got a taxi home alone, she would give the driver her address in the same deep, mysterious voice that had scared her so minutes before.

The man, the first victim of the epidemic, had finally sent his wife upstairs to call the children down, when he heard the children screaming. As he stood to rush up to them, his wife appeared on the balcony. 'It's happening,' she said, 'it's happening to me too.'

Indeed it was. The children hid in a bedroom, still screaming, maybe to drown out the sound of their parents talking frantically to each other with their new voices. Their new voice, in fact. For it was the voice of the same man.


By the Friday of that week, the man, together with his wife, the doctor, his receptionist and mistress, and all the other visitors to the surgery that day, would find themselves quarantined in abandoned army barracks far from home. By the Saturday they would be joined by the nurse, the doctor's wife, and the man's children, as well as sundry other individuals they had come into contact with since that morning, and yet more they did not recognise.

'I knew there was something about you I didn't like,' said the old man to the first victim, speaking, as expected, in the voice of Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor Who.

‘It’s not something I’ve done!’ replied the man.

‘Aye, of course not!’ snorted the older man. ‘Nothing to do with you at all, except that none of this would have happened if you hadn’t gone into that bloody doctor’s waiting room. You go to the doctor’s to get well, not to get sick!’ He carried on in this vein for many minutes, his voice impossible to ignore, however tedious his argument.

Food and supplies were brought to them each morning by military personnel, hidden behind masks, and clad from head to toe in impermeable protective suits. They left the supplies on the steps of the barracks, and only when they had retreated were the quarantined civilians allowed to go out to the supplies and take them inside. They were only too aware that escape was impossible, as guards patrolled in the distance, noticeably armed.

They followed events in the outside world on a small portable television in a rec room. At first, it seemed that everything was under control, with swift round-ups of infected individuals, who were then placed in quarantine centres around the country similar to their own. After a brief period on the run, the real Tom Baker was shown being led away by the army from a bed and breakfast, unshaven and confused. He would never be seen again.

Things began breaking down. Despite closing down the Channel Tunnel, all ports and airports, the virus escaped abroad. The French, Irish, Germans and Spanish reported outbreaks of Baker Syndrome, as it became known. The next day it had reached Africa, the Americas and the Middle East. The day after that, Australia and Japan. So contagious was the virus, it was thought inevitable that it would reach every country in the world within days.

In the quarantine centre, guards who had so menacingly patrolled with guns ready to shoot, would turn up at the door, unarmed and unprotected, speaking nervously and apologetically with the voice of Tom Baker, asking to be let in. As more and more were quarantined, conditions became cramped, and social niceties began to be left behind. The constant close contact with warm bodies led to arousal, and soon, at night, the wards were filled with the sound of copulating couples, each achieving orgasm with the same moan that Tom Baker had let out years before in The Lives And Loves of a She-Devil. The doctor, who at first was sheepish and penitent towards his wife when his affair with the receptionist had been revealed by an indiscrete quarantine officer, quickly rediscovered his rakish swagger, and talked both into an arrangement where he would cause both of them to moan like Tom Baker on alternate nights.

Most live TV shows were taken off-air as presenters succumbed to Baker Syndrome mid-broadcast. Some soaps tried to strive on manfully even when actors had clearly 'turned Tom,' but the results were so pitiful they were soon cancelled.

Meanwhile, newly infected individuals would use their sudden perfect anonymity to make telephone calls and express what they could never have said before. Parents would receive calls from Baker-voiced strangers expressing seemingly unprovoked hatred. Other individuals would find messages on their phone that they could not know were from their work colleagues, telling them that they loved them, and always had.

An international crisis was narrowly averted when the president of a Middle Eastern rogue state, who was known to have fallen to Baker Syndrome, apparently phoned the White House on a special hotline, and using a recognised code word, announced an imminent chemical attack. The US nuclear arsenal was readied in response, before it was confirmed to be a sophisticated hoax carried out by a disgruntled member of the rogue state’s cabinet, whose beheading was summarily televised.

As the old man watched these events unfold on the television, he shook his head and sighed. ‘It’s like the Tower of Babel,’ he said, ‘all over again.’

‘No,’ said the first victim of the epidemic, who sat close by: a regular churchgoer, although a not untroubled believer. ‘The Tower of Babel brought people together. It was back in the days when all the world spoke with the same language, and we built a tower to reach Heaven and challenge God. But this made God angry, and he destroyed the tower, and made Man speak with different tongues, causing confusion and division. It was God who pushed man away from man, because we had become too powerful. But we’re not speaking with the same language now: we’re speaking with the same voice. We don’t know where one of us ends and another begins. The confusion can only get worse. God must have His reasons for pushing us all yet further apart, impenetrable though they are. Perhaps He believes that once again we have become too powerful, and so must again be weakened by division.’

‘You don’t half talk crap,’ said the old man. ‘I just meant it was an almighty mess, that’s all.’

It became an inescapable fact that the virus could not be contained: that humankind would, for the foreseeable future, speak with the voice of Tom Baker, and those quarantined were let free. They now made up a tiny proportion of those actually infected, but had been held anyway to provide an illusion of management of the situation - something that had led to not inconsiderable disgruntlement in the quarantine centres during the period of confinement. At first, these conditions had led to an atmosphere of extreme irritability, with anger taken out on each other in acts of violence. These had been accompanied by the sound of Baker-voiced shouting and screaming: an unbearable overlaying of the same voice barking at itself and responding in pain. Slowly, however, this had subsided, and communication had begun to turn to the non-verbal. With the loss of their individual voice, inhabitants of the quarantine centres had taken up alternative forms of getting their point across. Notes were passed from person to person, even though they may only have been feet away from each other. A quite sophisticated sign language had developed from scratch within a period of weeks. But mostly they just read each other's body language, and often that was enough. By the time of their release the inmates were all but silent, the only noise they ever made being their low moaning Baker-esque orgasms.

On their first day of freedom, those who had been quarantined found that the outside world had become similarly quiet. As society began to reorder itself under the new conditions, verbal communication was no longer desirable. Although some treasured recordings of speech, any speech, made in the old days before the outbreak, most now found these ghostly voices too painful to listen to. And as time went on, and the act of talking faded away, so the world became quiet. The desire to make sound at all left humankind. It became a matter of urgency to fit noise-reduction components to equipment and transport. Love of music was replaced by a love of silence. People would go to especially quiet places just to listen to it.

Yet the spoken word was not completely dead. It would still be used, very occasionally. When the moment was right. Couples would say to each other, in private, as the first victim of the epidemic did to his wife on their first night back at the house, once the children had been put to bed: 'I love you'. And when he said it, it meant more than it had meant for so very long, for he had not said it for months, and knew he would not say it again for years. While in the places of worship of all religions, a few, spare verses from the Holy Scriptures would, very occasionally, be read aloud, spoken in the voice of Tom Baker. For this was now the voice of God; the voice of love. And the words would hang in the air for days afterwards, reverberating, deep into the silence.

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