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Alexander Melville Bell’s diagrams of human mouth movements, c.1867. Image: Wikimedia Commons (PD)

On the last day of last September, my sister sends a message to my brothers and me: ‘FYI, Telstra is closing the 1196 weather service at midnight tonight. So if you want to listen, today is your opportunity ☹’ For twenty years, a caller could dial 1196, select a region and then hear the weather forecast read by a computer-spliced version of my father’s voice. It was like the talking clock, when there was a talking clock to call for the precise time: ‘After the third stroke, it will be eleven forty-two and thirty seconds’. There is a weather app now, of course. The dial-up service is a twentieth-century technology that continued into the second decade of the twenty-first. Dad has been dead for nineteen years.

I had avoided listening to the weather service, hearing it only briefly not long after dad died. Mum had dialled the number and played it on speaker. I heard a few words of the familiar voice as I made my way out the door. Mum denied she called it often, but when we check her phone bill, the number – 1196 – recurs sometimes six or seven times a day.

Dad made most of the recordings – thousands of individual words and phrases – after the diagnosis. Diagnoses: first prostate cancer to be treated, then the resignation of metastases. I accompanied him to a few of the recording sessions. He would sit in a soundproof booth, headphones on, reading his list of words. Each word recited in three variations: upward inflection; downward inflection; flat. He enjoyed it. It reminded him of the work he had left only a few years earlier. He was a radio journalist. The booth, the precise enunciation, the ‘cans’ on his head, all took him back to his ​working life. And he was proud of his voice. It sounded strong still, holding its timbre, even as his body withered. I would steady him as he stepped from the booth.

In 1885 Alexander Graham Bell speaks into a metal funnel. ‘Hear my voice’, he insists, then states his name. A needle makes grooves in a wax-coated disc. For a long time after, the means to play the record disappears – the disc too fragile to use. An electronic scan is made in 2013 and Bell’s 134-year-old command can be heard and, therefore, obeyed.

It was a large project with many sessions. In the end, dad was too weak to go to the studio. The bank of words and phrases was nearly complete. So, the sound engineer came to my parents’ house to record the last parts: the names of small towns; rare weather events; bits needing re-recording. I remember the word ‘sunrise’ appearing in these last sessions. Apparently, birds can be heard in some of these – leaking in from the garden through my parents’ non-soundproof walls. I imagine callers to the weather service hearing, without recognising, fragments of blackbird chirrups. A microdot version of the dawn chorus, smuggled in the sound file saved as, ‘sunrise – flat inflection’.

The thousands of decontextualised words would sit in data banks waiting to be assembled. Not like spoken language at all; more like a collection of objects.

Bell’s 1885 recording is a test that runs 4 minutes, 35 seconds. It is mostly a careful recitation of numbers.

A thought occurred to me when dad was recording. The thousands of decontextualised words would sit in data banks waiting to be assembled. Not like spoken language at all; more like a collection of objects. Hard and interchangeable as Lego blocks. Worse, I imagined the growing list of words – ‘fine’, ‘mild’, ‘morning’, ‘fog’ – as a collection of undifferentiated bits of information. Some might never be used. They simply exist. All potential without anticipation. It felt like a curse to think this way. Secretly, I thought of those recorded words as cancer cells: proliferating without integration. Cancer can be a metaphor, but only for the survivors. The words piled up invisibly. Metastasising.

‘10, 20, 30, 40’​, Bell’s recitation is methodical. Time’s hiss lies over the top of it all. A rhythmic thumping can be heard too. The sound of the recorder itself, I suppose. The motor running or the disc spinning.

The thought of proliferation occurred to me again about ten years after dad died. I still did not listen to the weather service, despite its popularity. It came to me when I was taking my son to a specialist for his dyslexia. The therapist had my son write and re-write lists of words, attempting to imprint the spelling through repetition. It did not help. It went against his use of language. His natural state is continuous talk, even now in his adolescence. He loves the living stream; the exercise turned words to stone.

Bell’s recorder was hand-powered. The rhythmic thump must be the mechanism spinning as a crank is turned manually. The needle works through its cycles, bouncing minutely, as it translates the voice into a spiralling set of grooves. A scan now shows the curving channels as broken lines – rows of tiny dots spaced at varying intervals.

I type like dad. Like journalists once did: two-finger-and-thumb style, residual manual-typewriter technique. I tapped out my PhD that way. 90,000 words, like so many hourly bulletins stitched into significance and stored between oxblood hardcovers. He would have liked the heft of the thesis, would have been impressed by the chapter titles, but he would not have read the thing. Of course, only four people have read it. My own stockpile of unused words.

A well-spoken robot, impersonating my father, makes me ache. Another goodbye, so long after the last goodbye.

Another, earlier, experimental recording from 1881 has been restored. The voice of Alexander Melville Bell, Graham’s father, has been retrieved from the wax-filled grooves of a tinfoil cylinder. The sound file sits in a data bank of the US Department of Energy. I have not heard it. Bell Senior developed a system of ‘visible speech’, for the education of the deaf. He hoped it would become a universal language.

Now, my sister sends another text: ‘Be prepared to feel a bit sad when you listen’. I dial the number. I hear his voice. An echo of him in this mundane chant. Familiar/foreign. A well-spoken robot, impersonating my father, makes me ache. Another goodbye, so long after the last goodbye. We forget, somehow, to say goodbye.

Midnight is close now, as I write this. The echo of my father’s voice will disappear soon. Later, after the sun rises tomorrow, I will return to this piece and work on it. Perhaps I will publish it. Perhaps it will remain, a small heap of words, all potential without anticipation.