When I first met Alistair, he had the moon on a stick, or so it seemed. He held it above me one summer’s night, by the lakeside and told me he wanted to make films someday. We were fifteen, and I believed he might. He talked of Hitchcock and Hollywood…Beverley Hills…and the stars began to spin…the angels sang… …anything seemed possible and infinitely better than here.
We married as soon as we were able, Alistair and I, two months after my eighteenth birthday, in a rush before I started to show. My mother wasn’t happy…she’d wanted me to marry the son of a family friend. He was going to university, to be a doctor, and he’d always liked me, she said. I was a silly girl. Alistair was going to the ‘university of life’ I told her (in his words of course!)…you didn’t need an education if you wanted to create art. You just needed inspiration, and there was no better source of inspiration than being in love.
Fifty years, thousands of miles, and a small family later, I look at Alistair across a smoke-filled room, pipe hanging from the corner of sour, wet lips, and it’s hard to believe his smile had once held so much promise. Glazed and watery blue-grey eyes and too many ornaments, glare back at me, aimlessly, barely piercing the space between us. Alistair never did make films…he made sounds for films…or rather, he edited them after the Foley artists created them. And even that was too much for him in the end.
Shortly after we married, Alistair got a job at small, independent studio in Berkshire. They made art house movies, mostly horror, and I recall he came home from the interview all excited. Those cobalt eyes that had hooked me on the river bank, were still twinkling with the fever of youthful enthusiasm:
“It’s only in the recording studio Suzy, but I got it! I got it! We’re on our way…first step to Hollywood baby…” And why not? I was excited too, it really did seem he had his foot in the door now and the only way was up. Screw my mother, what did she know?
Our daughter was born in the summer of ‘61, and after that, my time became consumed with her. I was young and motherhood was all-encompassing. I kept house, I cooked and cared…a contented, if somewhat harassed, model wife. I prided myself on that, but it meant I had less time to notice Alistair. He came and went back and forth to work, as all good husbands should. He said the pursuit of his art shouldn’t make him careless, and we started paying a mortgage on a little terraced house. We struggled, but Alistair shoved a decent amount of housekeeping money into my hand every Friday, and walked to work so we didn’t have to go without meat any day of the week. He kissed me on the cheek every morning as he left our bed, and he spent the weekends with Eloise and I in the park or at the boating lake. We seemed happy.
I asked Alistair about work sometimes when he came home tense or quiet, but he rarely liked to discuss it. ‘Stress’ he said…it was very ‘stressful’ working with all those horror sounds, screams and thwacks and bone crunches…the kind of movies I didn’t like to watch, and we’d never want Eloise to see. I asked about Hollywood sometimes too…when Eloise started to walk, but Alistair said it wasn’t so easy as he’d thought…it might take a few years…then he rubbed his temples. I quieted down…it wasn’t a wife’s place back then to pry into her husband’s work, and it seemed to make it harder for him when I did. I just assumed I’d have to wait a little longer for the dream.
It wasn’t really until our son was born, in ’64, that I began to realise we weren’t going to Hollywood. I got Eloise into the local nursery school, and the second time round I was a little older and much more relaxed; a baby didn’t seem such hard work. I focused a little on Alistair then. I felt we’d disconnected while the children were being born and I didn’t know much about his life away from home. Maybe I’d been wrong about prying and I was the reason he hadn’t been promoted, perhaps I’d been unsupportive of his career. I resolved to try harder and began to ask him on an evening: “How was work?”
Alistair didn’t seem to like it. “Fine”, he’d say, tersely, his tone very closed. “Stressful.” I tried hard to be sympathetic, offered to listen, but Alistair rarely said much. Except in his sleep. He often made the sounds of his trade in his dreams, waking me at 3am with a witch’s cackle or a high-pitched scream. I raised the noises once at the breakfast table, but no matter how many times I asked him about it, Alistair didn’t seem to hear me. He just read his Sunday paper intently…until his hearing returned when I offered him a cup of tea and some toast.
I let it go, but when our son was around six months old, Alistair began to make a sound in his sleep I’d never heard before. It was a low, pitiful screaming, almost a bellow, as though something large were moaning in pain at the end of a long, narrow pipe. There were several sounds in the nocturnal catalogue that I was used to hearing…most of them I had even starting to sleep through, but I had never heard anything like this. I didn’t know much about Foley editing, or what Alistair really did at work, but this sound played in his dreams over and over, like a vinyl record that had got stuck on the needle and kept jumping back.
Around the same time, Alistair started buying pictures and models of elephants for the house. He liked them, he said. It reminded him of ‘The Project’, and kept his brain working on it when he got home from work. It was very important, he insisted, worth a lot of money if he could get it right, so I went along with it for a little while.
Alistair called all his elephants ‘Topsy’, and I wasn’t allowed to touch or clean them. When he came home with the 42nd elephant, I lost my temper and pressed him for more answers, they were cluttering up the window sills – what would the neighbours think? Before he lost his temper and struck me in the side of the head, Alistair said something about Edison’s film and a Foley sound he just couldn’t get right.
The final straw came one Saturday afternoon when I took the children into town. Alistair said he wasn’t coming…he was pretty sure he was close to resolving ‘The Project’ and he wanted to make some notes while the house was quiet. I wasn’t surprised, he rarely went anywhere with us by that time. When he wasn’t at work, he preferred to stay at home with the ‘Topsies’.
The children and I returned only hours later to a street full of fire engines and a special sort of ambulance at the curb. It appeared Alistair had attempted to wire all the ‘Topsies’ together and plug them into the mains. His eyes met mine as uniformed men led him into the back of the large white van, and I had never seen them look so dead.
“We made it Suze!” he declared, soot streaking his face and his hair on end like those photographs you see of Albert Einstein in science books. “I’ve got Topsy’s scream sorted! We’re off to Hollywood!”
We didn’t go to Hollywood. Alistair was committed to a mental health institution in rural Berkshire where I visited him year on year. There was never any improvement in his condition, and I kept the children away for their own sake. Shortly after his committal Alistair began making the low, bellowing noise he had once only uttered in his sleep, for hours throughout the day as well.
It later emerged through conversation with his colleagues and various therapies and shock treatments, that he had been working for over a year on the Foley sound edit for a clip of Edison’s 1903 film of the electrocution of Topsy, a rogue elephant on Coney Island who had killed three of her handlers. Alistair had spent hours every day in his editing studio, watching the clip on loop and ordering and reordering the sound of the elephant’s dying scream to be recorded by the Foley artists. It seems the sound of an elephant being electrocuted was notoriously difficult to make, and nothing had ever seemed to synchronise with the film or sound close to real. It had driven him to distraction, poor lamb.