THE VOICES

( 2003 Quentin Bristow)

[A widow hears her husband calling her name from the beyond, years after his death]

It was getting near Christmas in Martlesham, a rural village in eastern Ontario not far from Pembroke, the bustling town which is on the scenic Ottawa River. Molly Fraser stood outside the old rusting barn which was a part of the farm on which she and her husband Charlie had worked so hard and so long to make a living.

It seemed an age now since Charlie had come back from overseas after the war and asked her to marry him. As a veteran, he was eligible for a grant to buy land if he agreed to farm it. He didn't know much about farming, but Molly did, she was born and brought up on a farm, it was in her blood. Together they chose this place, at the edge of Martlesham. The village had got bigger over the years, now it even had a resident taxi driver who worked for a taxi fleet in Pembroke. It had been a tough grind, with plenty of lean years, but they had made it through all of them, raised a family, two boys and a girl and finally had enough money put aside for their retirement years.

It was not to be, Charlie was out fixing the barn roof one day, Molly had told him to wait till their son Mike came the following week, but no, Charlie was stubborn about his independence and he was up there on the ladder with his tools. Molly was nervous and in a split second all her fears were justified, she was in the kitchen when she heard a sliding sound and Charlie's yell. She rushed out to see the ladder sliding sideways with Charlie at the very top, tracing an arc as it slid to the edge of the barn, and then fell off with Charlie still clinging to it and crashed to the ground twenty five feet below.

Sick with fear she ran over to him, he lay there perfectly still with his eyes open. There was no pulse and after she fetched a hand mirror and held it over his mouth she knew that he wasn't breathing. Her world ended on that day, It wasn't fair, they had been hard-working Godfearing people all their lives and this was the reward, a brutal and callous end to the retirement that they had so richly earned, before it had even begun, and she had cursed God for allowing such a senseless accident. She had continued on with some hired help for a while, but her heart wasn't in it and eventually she decided to get rid of the cows and let out the pasture for the locals to graze their horses.

It had been five years since the accident and Molly was getting a little frail, but still as sharp as a tack. She hadn't been inside the old barn since the accident, but now she felt drawn toward it. She went inside and saw Charlie's tools, the pitchfork and spades and the old Fordson tractor, its tyres flat and forlorn, and the memories came flooding back. One year just before Christmas, they had gone around the village, carol singing with some other young couples, door to door, as people did in those days. They were plied with egg nog or whatever at every house and by the time they got home, Charlie was very merry indeed and said the place needed brightening up a bit. He really got carried away and ended up festooning the snow blower attachment on the tractor with Christmas lights wound around the auger, before tottering off to bed.

It snowed heavily that night, covering everything in a six inch blanket, including the tractor. Charlie, a bit the worse for wear, got up next morning, gulped down some coffee, and climbed aboard the tractor and cranked it up to clear the road. The auger chomped through the Christmas lights, causing a brief but spectacular display of Christmas fireworks, which was terminated when every fuse in the house blew out. The air was blue for the next half an hour while Charlie laboured away with a pair of wire cutters to free the auger from its strangling skein of green wires and tiny broken bulbs.

It was very quiet in the barn and Molly was reminded of the famous verse: Twas the night before Christmas, and throughout the house, nothing was stirring, not even a mouse. It didn't sit well with the farm girl and she muttered under her breath ("Oh Yeah, how about - not even a rat"). Then the silence was broken by faint sounds, scraps of music, very faint and jumbled up, and some voices, twittering like budgerigars. She was frightened and curious at the same time. It seemed to be coming from the wall of the barn nearest the highway, where the original galvanised corrugated sheets had suffered the most damage from the elements. She was absolutely dumbfounded, she didn't believe in voices-from-beyond in any way shape or form, but couldn't deny the evidence of her own ears.

She went outside the barn and the sounds receded. She went back in again and they were still there. Suddenly a faint but clear coherent voice came through above the babble: "Molly, its Charlie - see you soon". She was thunderstruck, and fled in panic to the safety of the house. There she sat at the kitchen table, put her head in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. What did it mean? Had her time come? It hadn't sounded like Charlie's voice for sure, but she was equally sure that it wasn't an illusion or delusion. The idea that the barn that had killed him was now the source of some message from the great beyond had a powerful effect on the terrified old lady.

No matter how hard she tried to put it behind her, the disturbing experience preyed upon her for days. She told herself not to be a stupid old woman and tried to convince herself that she must have dreamt the whole thing. She almost decided to phone her daughter in Calgary, but drew back at the last moment. "She'll think I'm a nut case and go and hold a family pow-wow with the other two kids and they'll be having me in a retirement home in no time. No way that's going to happen until I'm good and ready" she thought. Eventually she felt she had to tell someone and decided to ask her Priest, Father Ryan to take her confession. Molly and Charlie had known Father Ryan for many years and he had conducted Charlie's funeral Mass, now he was close to retirement.

She told him everything that had happened and asked him if he thought that it was some sort of a sign from heaven that her time was near. He was careful not to scoff at the idea and gently suggested that in circumstances when one is alone and memories have become rekindled and overpowering, the mind can sometimes play tricks on one.

She said: "Then you don't think I am ready for the round-house Father?"

He laughed out loud,

"Molly, you are probably the most rational, gritty, down to earth woman in my parish. The day they lock you up will be the day you meet the rest of us who will already be there waiting for you."

When she left, the old man was disturbed and perplexed. Molly was intensely practical and had all her marbles, and he really didn't believe that she had dreamt what she had described. The business about the scraps of jumbled music and voices triggered something in his memory that he couldn't quite put his finger on, but the main thing he was wrestling with was the message from Charlie. Why was it, he pondered ruefully, that while he was supposed to have the hot line to God, it was always lay people who got messages from beyond - if that's what they were. Oh well he thought, let's face it, the angel of the Lord came down and brought a message to a woman, and to a bunch of shepherds. There was nothing in the bible that he could remember about giving the High Priests in the Temple a heads-up.

It had come on to rain by then, so he decided to call for the only taxi to take him back to his modest church-owned house. It took a while and when it arrived he climbed in, gave his address and sat back. The driver picked up the microphone of his two-way radio and called in to the dispatcher in Pembroke - who happened to be his wife. He would be driving in to pick her up right after this fare. Father Ryan was totally taken aback by the Cab driver's message and stored it away for future reference. When he got in he poured himself a large rye on the rocks and pondered the conundrum of Molly and her voices and the Cab driver's message. He reckoned that the good Lord communicated with him more clearly through the medium of some Canadian Club, so he had another one.

Something must have worked, because suddenly some loose ends came together. "What I need now" he thought to himself, "is not so much divine intervention - as terrestrial explanation". The next day he called on one of his parishioners, Andrew Johnson, who was a retired radio engineer. Later on he called Molly.

"Molly, I have some very interesting news for you about the problem we were discussing the other day. I have been talking with someone who has a technical background and I am pretty sure that we have the answers. Would you be free this afternoon to come out with me to this gentleman's house and hear what he has to say about it?"

She readily agreed and Father Ryan took her in the one and only taxi to Andrew Johnson's house. As they drove off, he said "Molly, I want you to listen carefully to the driver when he calls in to the dispatcher." Then he said to the driver "Charlie, would you make the same call that you made the other day when you took me home?"

The driver picked up his microphone and (without pressing the button) called in: "Molly, its Charlie, see you soon"

Molly was stunned, "OH-MY-GOD, Omygod Omygod, (oh - please forgive me Father)" was all she could stammer out.

"Was that what you heard"

"Yes, yes, that was it, but how on earth could I have heard him saying that in a closed car in a normal voice from wherever he was in town on that evening?"

"That is what we are going to find out from Andrew Johnson in a few minutes" said Father Ryan.

Andrew Johnson was sixty-ish with a mop of white hair, a Van Dyck beard and piercing blue eyes. He welcomed the pair into his dining room and after the initial pleasantries Father Ryan got down to business. "You see" he said to Molly, "After you left that day I was struck by your description of the jumbled scraps of music and voices. For a while I couldn't quite remember where I had heard that before, but then it all came back to me, sitting in the parlour as a kid with my older brother, who was a radio buff, messing and tweaking his short wave radio. Half the time the stations coming in were so close together that he couldn't separate them and the noise you described was exactly what I used to hear. Then in the taxi going home the driver came up with that zinger of a message which convinced me that what you heard was all real. I didn't have the technical background to figure out how you could possibly be hearing radio signals without a radio receiver, which is why I put the problem to Andrew here."

At that point Andrew Johnson took over: "Mrs. Fraser, do you remember those old crystal sets, you know the ones where you had to poke a crystal with a piece of fine wire they called a cat's whisker, and then if you were lucky you would hear a broadcast through the earphones?"

"Yes", said Molly "My father had one and I played with it when I was a little girl"

"Well, your old barn is behaving like a giant crystal set. This is a well known property of old barns. In the twenties, when the first short wave AM radio stations sprang up across the continent, there were plenty of reports of broadcasts being heard off the walls or roofs of old sheet metal barns. The size of a barn makes it a very efficient antenna for short wave radio, and corrosion of the zinc coating and rusting of the iron causes mineral crystals to form over large areas, which can sometimes perform the function of the crystal in a crystal set. The electrical signals induced in the large metal sheets interact with the earths' magnetic field, causing them to vibrate and generate sounds just loud enough to be heard, like a huge earphone.

"The taxi driver is pretty sure that he was doing his last run along that highway where your barn is at about the time you were in the barn that evening, before going in to Pembroke to pick up his wife, and I understand that it is the rusty and corroded side of the barn that faces the road. That would explain both the message and why his voice came in much more strongly than all the others, which were probably from short wave radio stations all around the continent."

Molly thanked him profusely for giving her back her sanity as she put it, and Father Ryan drove back to the farm with her in the taxi. She thanked him warmly,

"May God bless you Father, it was very clever of you to put two and two together like that, you have lifted a huge burden from my shoulders."

She should have seen the next move coming, but saw the end game too late..

"Is there any chance you will come to Christmas midnight Mass Molly? I will have someone come and fetch you if you like"

She really didn't want to go, but perhaps after all it would be for the best.

"I do believe I might take you up on that Father, its been a long time"

A few days later it was Christmas Eve, and as the dusk gathered, she took a candle and some matches out to the barn. She lit the candle and placed it on the radiator of the old Fordson tractor, "Happy Christmas Charlie" she said softly.

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