Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Seas of Static Between Stations"

a short story
by Mathew Gostelow

April 5, 2023
1,463 Words

Dementia is a radio detuning, a slow slide of mourning as, piece by piece, a personality is drowned in hissing white noise emptiness.

Are you there? Are you there? Can you hear me?

Dad loved radios. He wanted me to love them too, back then. When I was a kid, he’d buy old wooden sets from the thirties and forties, the time before he was born, and work on them in the shed. He’d restore them. Slowly, patiently coaxing tinny voices and crackly, crunchy music from their vintage electronics.

Sometimes, I used to put my ear against the soft cloth of the speaker and move the tuning dial. There was a smell of hot dust that came from inside those old sets. I enjoyed drifting from station to station, surfing the waves of chaotic noise, the random snippets of tunes and speech, the fizzing fuzz of interference in between.

For Dad, the radios were a way to connect with the past - the momentous news that had resonated from their speakers, the families who had gathered around them, sharing joy, fear, and sadness. He talked like the radios were living things.

The shed smelled of glue, varnish, hot smoking solder. The cut-wood aroma of hardware stores. The workbench looked chaotic, but Dad could always lay his hand on exactly what he needed.

When I was little, I liked watching him work. It was pleasing, relaxing. But by the time I was old enough to get involved, I'd lost all interest.

"Want to give me a hand in the shed today, Danny lad? Got some sanding to do, could use your help."

"I said no, Dad! I'm meeting Paul, we're out on our bikes today. It's boring in your shed, and it smells funny."

I think about that moment a lot. The way I saw his face drop. The realisation that I'd hurt him, followed quickly by the knowledge that I didn't care. I was jealous of the time he spent in that shed, the attention he gave to his hobby.

"I hate radios."

"Never mind, Danny lad. You get out on your bike. Another time maybe."

After that, Dad worked on the radios by himself.

I miss you all very much.

A few years back, when Dad was diagnosed, we moved him in with us, out of the old house. Vascular dementia. A slow goodbye. We read everything we could find. There wasn’t much good news.

When we cleared the place out, we must have found twelve radios in that shed of his, in various states of disrepair and restoration. We put them all in the skip. I still didn’t have room for his hobby, but Dad said he didn’t mind.

"It’s fine, Danny lad, honestly. You don’t want to fill your house with my old clutter."

Please don't cry. Remember the good times.

Dad used to say he could pick up the voices of the dead through the radios as he worked on them. They floated, he said, in the shushing seas of static between stations. He said it with a twinkle in his eye, but I think he truly believed it.

"They don’t say much, Danny lad. Not really. But they do talk to me sometimes."

As a teen, this whimsy rankled, and I took great pleasure in debunking Dad’s fanciful idea.

"That's such bollocks, Dad. You're just hearing kids or lorry drivers, messing about on CBs. Why would dead people talk to you, of all people?"

I researched electronic voice phenomena, an old ghost-hunting trick of recording empty rooms with audio cassettes, hoping to pick up spirit speech. Listening back later, on headphones, parapsychologists would swear they heard words in the warm, soothing hiss of the tape.

"Don't be an idiot, Dad. It’s pareidolia, that’s all. Holding a shell to your ear and thinking you hear the sea. Finding faces in wood grain. Humans are sense-making machines. It’s what we do."

I want you to know I'm happy.

But what happens when we can't make sense anymore?

Dad started to become paranoid, confused. Full of questions with no easy answer. Why did we stop him leaving the house? Why did he never have any money? One day he got up early, dressed in a suit and tie and told us over breakfast he had an important job interview.

The doctors said we could slow the decline by keeping his brain active.

"Does he have a pastime? A passion?" they asked.

So I bought a radio. A Murphy A46 from the late 1930s. Five valves. Long-wave and short-wave circuits. It hadn’t worked in forty years, according to the seller online. While Dad was still lucid, he helped me make a list of the things we’d need to restore it.

I bought tools, materials. I sourced valves, resistors, capacitors, transistors. Not the tiny electronic components they have inside modern radios, we were seeking out chunky, obsolete analogue parts.

I found no joy in the baffling circuit maps, the fiddly assembly, the confusing component parts. But Dad did. And I found joy in his joy. On the good days he smiled a lot, radiating such warmth that I wondered why I pushed so hard against his hobby as a kid. Why had I left it so late to connect with him?

On the bad days, he was barely there at all. Adrift, lost at sea, in the space between stations.

It’s quiet here. Peaceful. Safe.

Over time, analogue technology wears itself out. Dad taught me that. Valves and transistors are living things. They slip and slide. Warming up, cooling down, changing, degrading. Not like modern microchips, with their rock-solid zeroes and ones. These old sets lose their tuning gradually. It becomes harder and harder to get a good signal as they age.

I watched a lot of tutorials online. I worked steadily in the evenings and weekends. Out of my depth. Dad would help sometimes, when he felt up to it. But more and more I worked alone, with Dad staring into the distance, silent over his cold, forgotten tea.

I read that every time they put up a phone mast, the AM signal gets damped and diluted a little more. Time and progress are enemies of these old radio sets.

In the end, I just worked on it by myself.

I'm sorry for the mistakes I've made. I wasn’t always good at this stuff.

When Dad started hoarding kitchen knives under his mattress, when we found him screaming in the rain at 2a.m., we knew things were changing. We knew he needed support we couldn’t provide.

In the care home, Dad was safe, but his mind detuned more quickly, his body became frail. I visited him a lot and watched as the vacant, empty staring gradually became his normal state. Whole visits passed without him knowing I was in the room.

When I wasn’t working, I was visiting. And when I wasn't visiting, I was tinkering with the radio. I found the smoky lead smell of solder comforting, transporting me back to Dad's old shed, his cluttered bench. I clung to those fragments of memory, wishing I had more

I wanted to be able to show him. It felt urgent. Like if I could just repair the Murphy A46, then maybe he would magically snap out of it. But as his decline accelerated, my progress slowed. The components were definitely correct, I was pretty sure I’d assembled the circuit properly, but for some reason only a faint fizz of static came through the speaker.

I'll always be here, looking out for you.

One night, I heard them. I was checking connections, desperate to hear anything through the old set besides waves of hissing white noise. That was when they came. Tiny voices. Almost too quiet to hear. Speaking in hesitant fragments. At first I thought I’d fixed the circuit, found a station. But the longer I listened, the more I was convinced that Dad had been right. They were weak, disembodied, the voices of lost souls.

I listened in wonder, hairs on my forearms prickling at the strangeness of it. I stared, distracted, as they came and went. Eventually, I snapped out of my reverie. I had to go over and see Dad, show him I'd got some sound out of the old set. Tell him he was right after all. That I finally understood.

I was scrabbling to get the back of the radio screwed on when I heard a new, familiar voice fighting to be heard above the shushing static snowstorm.

I just wanted to say goodbye. Can you hear me, Danny lad? I love you. I always loved you. You make me very proud.


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About the Author

Mathew Gostelow (he/him) is a dad, husband, and writer, living in Birmingham, UK. Some days he wakes early and writes strange tales. If you catch him staring into space, he is either thinking about Twin Peaks or cooked breakfasts. His stories and poems have been published by Lucent Dreaming, Janus Literary, The Ghastling, Ellipsis, Stanchion, Roi Fainéant, Cutbow Quarterly, voidspace, and others. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Spare Parts Lit in 2022 and has won prizes from Bag of Bones Press and Beagle North.

Copyright ©2023 by Mathew Gostelow.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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