“Hello!" Malcolm called into the darkness.
“Hello! Hello! Hello!” came back the rebounded response.
“Hello!!” Malcolm repeated.
“Hello!! Hello!! Hello!!” the cavern replied once more. Malcolm listened for a moment. He listened to the drip drip drip of water pouring from every crevice and off every stalactite. He listened to each gasp of his own steady breathing and he listened to the shrill silence of the subterranean grotto, before calling out once more:
He waited for the reply. But nothing came back. Just the drip drip drip and static silence. He couldn’t have shouted loud enough, Malcolm thought, so he tried once more.
“Hello! Hello!! Hellooo!!!” he tried, again and again and again. All to no avail.
Malcolm pondered for a moment on the disappearance of his sound waves and decided to give it one last go. He filled his lungs to the point of bursting with the damp cavern air, ballooning his chest and reddening his cheeks, and then bellowed into the blackness until his voice box was sore with the strain.
“I heard you the first time,” the cavern replied.
“Hello?” asked Malcolm cautiously.
“I’m fed up with hello, say something else,” the echo came back.
“Who’s there?” Malcolm demanded.
“Who’s there? Who’s there? Who’s there?” demanded the echo in return.
“Hello?” enquired Malcolm. Nothing. “Hello?” repeated Malcolm louder.
“Can’t you say anything else? Please I’m tired of hello,” the rock walls finally answered.
“Who’s there?” asked Malcolm again.
“Please, it’s so tedious. Say something else,” responded the echo.
“Like what?” called out Malcolm.
“Like what? Like what? Like what?” corresponded the reply.
“Hello?” shouted Malcolm. “Who’s there?”
“It’s all people ever say to me,” the echo told Malcolm. “Hello.”
“Hello?” repeated Malcolm.
“Yes hello,” corroborated the echo. “It’s boring. It’s repetitive. Nobody ever talks to me,” the voice faded away.
“Is someone there?”
“Is someone there? Is someone there? Is someone there?”
Malcolm hoped two things. He hoped that one; he wasn’t going mad, and two; if he was, no one was watching. He repeated. “Hello!”
“I’m lonely,” said the echo, its voice a living voice. “I want to say beautiful things.”
“What do you want to say?”
“What do you want to say? What do you want to say? What do you want to say?”
“Hello?” enquired Malcolm for the umpteenth time. “What do you want to say?” he asked the blackness, then waited for the reply.
When it came, it was barely a whisper. “Tennyson.”
“Tennyson?” said Malcolm surprised.
“Tennyson. Tennyson. Tennyson,” confirmed the echo. “O mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies, O skill’d to sing of time or eternity, God-gifted organ voice of England...”
Malcolm kneeled on the slippery rocks for some time, listening to the echo’s words peter and fade, before once again finding himself alone with the drip drip drip, the silent shrill and his own bewildered thoughts.
He went to work that week. He ate his sandwiches, made small talk and watched the television, but always in the back of his mind was the cavern. He returned to it the following weekend armed with two volumes of Tennyson’s poems he’d check out of his local library.
That afternoon the cavern reverberated with chapter and verse of Alfred Lord Tennyson. The damp stone walls and granite ceiling boomed with every line, every word, every syllable. Malcolm lead, the echo followed.
Echoes to the right of him. Echoes to the left of him. Echoes in front of him. Into the cavern he read, his words volleying and thundering more passionately than he had ever known them to sound… sound…! sound…! sound…!
At the end of the day, Malcolm closed the now dog-eared and damp books, put them back in his satchel and looked around the cavern.
“Where falls no hail, or rain, or any snow, nor ever wind blows loudly.”
He was about to leave when he had a final thought, then turned and called out one last word.
“Hello! Hello! Hello!” came back the echo.
Published: in Veto III by Norwich University College of the Arts (2009)
Background: I wrote The Echo some 18 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. It's one of my earliest short stories and I have a soft spot for it, even after all these years. It's not seen the light of day until now, so it's nice to finally see it in print in Veto III. My thanks go to Danny Marsh for inviting me to contribute to the NUCA's collection.Check out some of Danny Marsh's own writing at eatmysadness.com.