360. Eternal Ballads

Just before noon on May 22, I was writing the posts leading up to the Golden Age panel I will be doing at Westercon. I wanted to know the name of a particular J. G. Ballard short story for the post. I remembered the story, not its name, so I pulled out my compilation of his work. It is massive, and by the time I had found the story in question (Deep End) I was approaching a state of depression. Ballard can do that. I suggest taking him in small doses; one story a week maximum.

That was when this story occurred to me. I wrote it in about an hour. Once it was finished, I realized that it might seem a very strange story — if you don’t know Ballard, and particularly Deep End.


He was an old man already when they caught him. The crime, if it was a crime, and if he had done the deed, occurred so long ago that there were few witnesses left. Three, to be exact. One placed him on the scene. One testified that he had seemed to know too much about the crime, in conversation, a week after it was done. One said he saw it happen, and saw the old man, when he was a young man, and testified that they were the same person. None of the witnesses told exactly the same story two days running, but they were all old, so you could expect that.

The accused was found guilty and sentenced to ten years. It was a lenient sentence for the crime, but no one thought he would live long enough to serve it.

They placed him in a cell of the new type. For decades solitary confinement had been deemed cruel and unusual, so only the most dangerous endured it. The old man was not dangerous. He swayed when he walked and he was always short of breath.

But there were new rules now, designed to protect prisoners from each other. The old man was so clearly frail and helpless, that they applied to him. They put him in a cell, four meters by three, with a toilet and shower in an alcove, an opening that presented food three times a day, and a steel door that was closed once and forever, not to be opened for ten years, or until the old man died. This would keep him safe from the other prisoners who might have tormented him.

There was a camera at the ceiling, through which he could be observed.

Before he was incarcerated, they asked him what book he wanted with him. He would only get one. Most prisoners asked for the Bible. A few asked for the Koran. Buddhists never asked, as they carried their god within themselves.

The old man was not religious, but he loved the sound of human voices. It was the thing he anticipated missing the most, so he said, “Ballads,” thinking he could sing them and ease the eternal silence of the cell.

They gave him his book, pushed him through the doorway, and the last human sound he heard was the clanging of the door, and the oiled sliding of the lock. He sat on the bed. It was made of plastic, semi-soft, vastly durable, designed to outlast him. He was naked because once a prisoner had stuffed his mouth and nostrils with torn clothing, and slipped his hands into pre-tied manacles of denim, and had escaped into death.

After an hour of silence, eyes downcast to avoid the gray walls, the old man took up his book, but they must have misunderstood him. It was the complete short stories of J. G. Ballard. The old man had never heard of Ballard. With a sigh, he opened to the first page and read, “I first met Jane Ciraclides during the recess . . .”

#              #              #

When the proctors came to let him out at the end of ten years, they went first to the observation station. There were one hundred screens on the wall, ten rows of ten, all tied to the cameras in the cells for which this observer was responsible. The observer quickly darkened all but one screen, as protocol demanded. He had spent thirty hours a week in this room for eighteen years, viewing a hundred prisoners who could not look back. His outlook had become narrow, but his body had grown large.

The proctors were hardened to viewing the results of solitude, but even they were startled by the old man’s appearance. His head was shaggy in parts, bare and raw in other parts where he had torn out his hair by the handful. His body was a skeleton wrapped in wrinkled skin. The walls of his cell were covered with graffiti made with excrement. It must had smelled terrible.

Following protocol, they watched him for two hours, waiting for the moment his sentence would be up. He lay most of the first hour, foetal on the bed. Then he staggered up. There was no sound from the room, except the sliding of bare feet on concrete. The old man had uttered his last curse eight years before, and every day since then had been wordless. But not utterly without sound.

Now he approached the book, and opened it. He let pages flutter past, until he found a starting place, and then he read. After a moment, there was a faint groaning. After five minutes, that gave way to an ululation on two notes that grew in volume as his body began to shake. Eventually he leaped up and hurled himself against a wall, beating it with his fists until blood flowed, and sinking to the ground in whimpers.

The observer remained unmoved, sitting in his place like a fat Buddha who no longer saw the world’s pain. He leaned forward and rotated the camera, and said, “I thought so. Deep End. That always upsets him the most.”

One of the proctors said, “How can he have survived like this?”

The observed replied, “Everybody lives forever in Hell.”


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