“Diminuendo in Three Letters”

By DJ Cockburn

I thrill to music I’ve never heard before.

I lie back on my sofa, closing my eyes while violins carry me to places I could never have dreamed until I heard them. When the last diminuendo fades, it leaves a burning loss in the silence. I blink tears from my eyes to look at the CD cover. I learn I’ve been listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

I pause the player. I don’t want another composition to disturb the resonance Barber has left in his wake. I stroll into my kitchenette to make a cup of tea, thinking that the end of my career hasn’t matched the dread I remember from my last weeks at work. After thirty years as a biochemist, it’s no bad thing to remember there’s more to life. I’m not even sure how long I’ve been unemployed for. The severance package was generous, so I’m under no pressure to find another job.

I amble into my bedroom. I stand at the window and watch the afternoon sun kiss the top of a hill. When the hunt for memory-enhancing drugs filled my days, I had no time to appreciate natural beauty. I feel as if I’ve never seen a sunset before.

A photograph beside my bed catches my eye. A man, a woman, a girl and a boy look back at me. The boy wears the look of happy exuberance that has yet to encounter the tribulations of being a teenager. The girl is already in her early teens, which might account for her more subdued expression. The woman’s smile carries the comfort of being surrounded by those she loves and who love her.

I don’t recognize any of them.

The man in the picture is me.

I hold up the photograph to the dying light. It’s definitely the face I recognize from the mirror, though it’s younger and has the careworn look I carried when I was working. My face in the photo is happy. Careworn or not, I’m looking at a man surrounded by what fulfils him.

I can’t remember that picture being taken. Who are the woman and kids, and why are they framed by my bedside table? And why has that sense of loss I felt at the end of the adagio returned with redoubled force? I grip the picture frame so hard that it bites into my hands. I replace the photo as I found it. I’m disturbed by my need to remember who that woman and those kids are, but racking my brain brings nothing to mind.

I’ve led a full life. I must have met a lot more people than I remember.

When a problem stumps me, I usually find the solution comes to me when I’m thinking about something else, and right now I have a cup of tea to enjoy and a sofa to enjoy it on.

On my way back to my living room, I notice today’s mail on the doormat. It must have been there since this morning. Just a couple of catalogues for something or other, which is as interesting as anything that ever comes through the letterbox.

I pick them up for the recycling, uncovering three narrow brown envelopes beneath them. They don’t look glossy enough to be junk mail so I give them a closer look. They’re each stamped ‘Human Tissue Authority’ and postmarked three months ago.

I’d never thought privatizing the Royal Mail was a good idea, but surely they haven’t become that slow.

And why was I getting letters from the HTA? I filled out the forms years ago, on the off chance of some random accident. I’m more than happy to leave my carcass to the next generation of medical scientists when I’m finished with it, and they’ll deal with the hassle of disposing of it when they’ve done whatever they want to do with it. The only arrangements anyone will need to make is deciding where to scatter the ashes.

Why are they writing to me now? The only change in my circumstances has been my layoff, which isn’t something that will affect my anatomy.

But it’s unlikely to amount to more than a new form to fill, and I can’t understand why I’ve spent so long thinking about it when my tea is getting cold.

I drop one of the catalogues over the letters, dump the other one in the box for recycling and return to the sofa.

My tea has cooled to the perfect temperature to be savored. Such delicious novelty from a humble leaf.

When my life was less leisurely, I’d have had those letters opened and either thrown away or replied to in ten minutes. Perhaps my mind is losing its edge without work to keep it honed. I should start looking for another job.

But I’m happy here in my flat. Do I really want to exchange music and sunsets for the daily fall out of bed and commute to the lab? I’m not even certain I could persuade anyone to take me on. Drug discovery is all I know, and it’s a competitive field. My résumé consists of thirty years of searching for a memory enhancer, with nothing to show for it but half a dozen compounds that do the opposite. Some of the failed drugs were strikingly selective in their activity, and so effective that even the strongest reminder of a targeted memory would stimulate nothing but indifference.

I’d learned so much about the way memory works and how to manipulate it that I’d kept some of my results to myself. I’d seen the Bourne films, and I hadn’t gone into medical research to make them a reality.

It wasn’t a track record that would look good next to a newly-minted Ph.D. with a few papers. Who’d want to take a drug that makes you forget?

I don’t complain. I spent thirty years being fascinated by my job, which makes me a lucky man. Most people I know spend their working days longing to go home.

I put down my cup and notice a pill bottle next to the coaster. Instead of the usual pharmacy label, there’s a sticker with the words, “one a day”, handwritten on it. I’ve filled enough lab books to recognize my own scrawl when I see it, but I can’t remember what these pills are for. Surely I’d remember if I’d been diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or any of the various highs and lows that plague the affluent middle-aged man.

Wouldn’t I?

I’m not as certain as I should be. The lack of routine is taking its toll, as my days blur into each other. I can remember everything since I woke up with crystal clarity, so I know I haven’t taken a pill today. They must be for something so I wash one down with my tea.

I restart the CD player. This time I check the title before the next track starts. I don’t recognize the name of Concierto de Aranjuez, or the gentle guitar notes that lead me into it.

I close my eyes and thrill to music I have never heard before.


“Diminuendo in Three Letters”
Constellary Tales Issue No. 3, May 2019

DJ Cockburn funds his writing habit by conducting medical research. Earlier phases of his life have included teaching unfortunate children and experimenting on unfortunate fish. His stories have appeared in Apex, Interzone, and the Year’s Best Science Fiction for 2014, and he won the 2014 James White Award. Find him at cockburndj.wordpress.com (or he can occasionally be caught twittering as @DJ_Cockburn).


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