The Sound of Memory by Emily Price

The Sound of Memory by Emily Price

Winner (Young Adult Category)

The boiling water immediately turns a deep tan colour as it makes contact with the teabag. Hand shaking with exertion, he places the kettle onto the blue Formica benchtop. As he pulls up and down on the red tab of his English Breakfast, clouds of tannin turn the liquid to a dark almond colour. Finally satisfied, he dumps the teabag on the edge of the sink, to be reused at a later date. Ever so carefully. He carries the chipped, well-used Cowboys mug to the kitchen table. The shaking of his hand that he tries so hard to control threatens to spill his cuppa. He never fills it all the way to the top anymore, it’s too risky. Lowering himself down into the chair with a crack of his arthritic knees, he waits for it to cool enough to take a first sip. Slowly, he brings the cup up and gives the tea a gentle blow before lowering his lips to the navy rim.

The noise comes out of nowhere. The whirring of helicopter blades and the roar of a Chinook’s engine seem to cover the tiny house like a heavy duvet. The rumbling infiltrates his mind until he can hear nothing else. It sends aggressive shivers down his arm in an uncontrollable reaction. The violent smash of his favourite mug and burning sensation of hot liquid soaking into his clothing barely register. He is somewhere else, in a world where fear and instinct overtake him. It is not the machines overhead that scare him, this is a paranoia brought back to life by the rhythmic wop-wop of the rotor.

His hand covers one ear as he squeezes his eyes shut and drops on shaky legs to the floor. Shards of china draw droplets of blood as he scrambles beneath the table and curls into the foetal position. Beneath the wooden table, no matter how hard he tries to resist, jungle and darkness surround him. He cannot escape the yelling, helicopters and gunshots that resound in his mind, despite his ears being covered tightly by his arm and shoulder. The images are just flashes, like slides being put through a projector, but they force him into a cold sweat. The heavy, laboured sound of his own breathing reminds him of combat training. Like a child having a nightmare, he finds it impossible to stop the memories. His body convulsing, tears streaming down his face, he tries to change the inevitable ending of the past. But just like a dream, he is powerless to change what he sees. They keep playing, a film that rolls round and round the projector.

Before him he sees it, the image that haunts him at night and wracks his heart with unassailable guilt. 347 dead lie strewn across a field. He remembers the number and the list of names. They were the enemy, but people all the same. He was meant to be the good guy, but he struggles to believe that. He never looked at his mates in the same way after seeing what they could do, and has never forgiven himself for what he did not do to stop it. In the vision, the colour saturates his lenses, making the destruction seem unfathomably worse than in the black and white pictures sent home. He sees the blood spilling, bright and viscous, from bodies. Human features, once loved by families, are now unrecognisable. What he has seen in Mỹ Lai he cannot un-see. The faces of children, their dark hair contrasting against vermillion blood. The faces of women, their slender bodies torn to pieces. The medal he was given all those years later brought no salvation. Even now, the memories leave him gasping for air, wiping sweat from his brow and tears from his eyes. How much longer can he live with this guilt of his?

He must alleviate the pressure of his racing heart and rushing blood. Gripping the chair with his hand to pull himself to standing he then shuffles, almost stumbling, toward the old oak upright. He lifts the creaking lid and pulls out an old stool with wonky legs and a frayed cushion. The piano reminds him of himself; old. He has discovered that five fingers don’t make quite the same sound as ten, but nevertheless he lays his arthritic fingers on the stained ivories. The flowing melodies he draws from the instrument are as beautiful as they are simple. Gradually his breathing slows to the tempo of the tune and his hand loses its constant shaking. The notes resonate around the small kitchen and living area, filling him with very different memories and emotions. There is no need to cover his ears this time. This is the sound of healing.

Many a time he has thought of ending it all as a way to escape his guilt, but he cannot. He would be a coward. He must face the day and soldier on. After that day, he vowed to use every day for good as a way of penitence. This is him, proving that something beautiful can come out of destruction. Bravery is more than choosing not to partake in something heinous. It is making the conscious decision to do something worthy instead. Getting up each day to face his demons instead of succumbing to them takes bravery. Turning those demons into something to be proud of takes bravery. The sound of the helicopters has finally disappeared, yet his hand continues to dance on the keys. He has moved on from his past. He is living in the present.

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