Chapter 3: The Sound of Silence
from the 1964 album “Wednesday Morning, 4 A.M.” by Simon & Garfunkel
posted 01:14, 12 January 2019
Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
In the two years since my husband died, I’ve learnt how to listen more in bed.
Granted, this is possible only when the neighbourhood you live in is quiet and peaceful. If you live in the middle of the city, then there’s no chance of that: the roar of air-conditioners and chatter in the streets, the arguments and all the different voices blaring from neighbouring windows, everything melds together and nags you endlessly, stabbing effortlessly into your thoughts and fantasies. And I hated all that chatter, that endless collage of chaos that only subsides when you’re well into dreamland and never really died down.
But ever since I moved out of the city and sequestered me and my son in a silent little house, I’ve learnt to treasure every sound I hear. Once you shut the lights, lie down in the dark, maybe move a bit closer to the windows… the amount of detail that filters through is simply astonishing. In the blackness, with my visual senses all but extinguished, I sometimes imagine that I’m a maestro of the night: a wave of the hand here, and a motorcycle races past; a twist of the hand there, and the town drunk crashes into one of the dustbins right on cue. It’s marvellous how these things happen with astonishing regularity: sometimes they happen at exact times, accompanied by little patterns I’ve learnt to recognize.
A little squeal comes from across the hall, followed by a muffled thump. One of my favourite patterns. I lie back in my bed and pretend to be asleep. A black shadow enters the room, and before long, I feel someone gently stroking my feet. My son stares at me from the foot of the bed, and I take in his tired, frightened eyes.
“Mama,” he motions.
“What’s the problem?” I already know, but I know he wants to tell me himself.
“Something is shaking my bed. I can feel a monster there.” He runs towards me, and I sit up and give him a hug. Nothing like the imagination of children. I feel his soft hair, the curve of his head. My hand passes over the lengthy scar just behind his ear. He winces slightly and looks at me, biting his lips anxiously. His eyes are clouded over with fear, and George swims into my eyes for a second. My nose tickles just a bit, so I hastily get up. He takes my hand and leads me back to his room.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure that the monsters aren’t interested in you,” I say, halfway across the hall. “And Daddy’s still protecting you, remember? He’ll fight off any creature that even dares to come near you, Ben.” I sign that word with emphasis, and he gives a small smile.
In the little castle that also doubles as Ben’s bedroom, he crawls back into bed while I pretend to stare down anything that’s lying under it. Of course, the most dangerous thing that’s there is just a haphazard maze of little boxes and suitcases clutter the space underneath the bedframe. I catch myself looking too long at a particular green packing-case. Can’t think about that now, I remind myself. Do that in bed. Not in front of Ben.
I sit on the edge of the small bed. My legs scrape against the corner of something hard. Ben looks up at me, unable to contain the mix of guilt and pleasure inside him. I roll my eyes and pull the book out from underneath the mattress. “Alicia and the Inverted House”, bought just two days ago. “You really like Charles Rackham, huh?”
He looks elsewhere, a little worried. He is ten, after all, and little boys always worry about getting into trouble. “It’s fine,” I say, motioning for him to lie down. “I loved his books as a kid too.” No point in lecturing him about how late it is, or the evils of reading in the dark. It’s going to be back in his hands anyway — if not tonight, then tomorrow morning at the latest. I’ve tried every nook and cranny in the house, but he always finds them sooner rather than later, and now it’s more a question of time and patience for him than skill from me. I can’t help feeling a little proud.
A truck trundles by slowly, and I have to close the window. Following my gaze, Ben stares at the vehicle outside with me, and we keep watching the road, even long after the truck disappears round the bend and I can hear nothing but the crickets chirping outside. Finally, Ben taps me on the shoulder. “Mama,” he signs.
Ben is quiet for quite some time, staring at me. I look away a bit. “Do you still miss Dad a lot?”, and this time he speaks the words, his voice creaking, unsteady after days of disuse.
I sigh. Of course I do, but there’s an unsaid rule somewhere that mothers can never show weakness. They have to be a paragon of strength, at least until their child is old enough to understand that their mothers are human, that it’s okay for single parents to shed tears and miss their other half.
So I purse my lips and nod silently as Ben watches me, the silence once again reigning supreme between us. After the crash, it had been touch and go for Benjamin Whitacre for some time. The doctors told me that more than once they’d predicted his imminent death, or at least that it would soon be over after a short few years in a wheelchair. But no: just as everyone was about to give up hope, he had rallied. Within two months, he was out of hospital, and if nobody looked too close he was no different from any other ten-year-old. At least, until they talked to him.
I sit by the side of the bed, watching Ben’s eyes close, his breathing just a bit too fast to be convincing. Waiting for me to make my exit, so that he can escape into Rackham’s world once more. What can it be like for him? His soundtrack is forever the same, never changing: a steady thump-thump-thumping inside his mind, a dissonance around every corner. The world that he used to know, one with its joyous screams and flowing melodies, is now only a distant memory that recedes from him day by day. On the rare occasions that he chooses to speak, the words come out haltingly. It must be hard for him, to come up with the right words to express himself.
I sigh and replace the book on top of the shelf. A couple of folded sheets flutter out. Thinking that it’s a loose leaf from the book — old, spotty and crumbling at the spine — I open it, and a swirl of words and letters greet me, jostling each other to show me a world that exists on another transcendental plane. Trying to figure out which page it’s from, I glimpse at one of the sheets.
At first, nothing makes sense. It’s a chapter near the beginning, where Alicia first discovers the secrets of the house, precariously hanging upside-down on the edge of a cliff — but there’s something strange about the way it’s told, something that feels off, as if Rackham had disappeared and had been replaced by an unearthly voice, hidden in the shadows. Then bits and pieces click into place, the rhythm of the words begin to activate parts of my brain I’d locked away. Slowly but steadily, George appears in Ben’s messy handwriting: his way of telling a story so that he melted into it, assuming ten different roles in the space of fifteen minutes; his weird humour, his every verbal tic, his way of changing subjects in the middle of a sentence just to catch people off guard. The story, which I read so many years ago, is still there in those sheets of paper, but details and characters have changed, leaping off the page to assume lives and voices of their own — and around them all, a voice which commands the story forward, with a joie de vivre that is almost impossible to resist, that assures us that all will be well despite the rising action and the chaos of noises around us. It’s almost as if George is in the room.
It takes me a while to realize that I’m laughing through my tears, the memory of George seeping in through the words. I hadn’t expected to hear his voice again, much less appreciate the way he could turn a soundscape of anarchy into a clear troupe of voices. But it’s there. Right in the pages, in the ink that my son has scratched onto the sheets of paper. How did he even manage it? I shake my head. Some things just leave you wondering. But I’ve never been so glad to be perplexed in my entire life.
I glance at the bed. Benjamin’s watching me, but the moment he senses me looking, he hides his face under the bedsheets. I grab a tissue, wipe away the snot and replace the book, leaving the papers peeking out from in between the pages. I kiss him on the forehead and head back to bed, safe in the knowledge that the rhythm and memory of a million words flow in his brain — even when the sound of silence is filling his ears.
— What the hell that’s an amazing story, Emily! That hardly looks like a story that was cobbled together at the last minute… you really do have a knack for that kind of thing!
Do drop by the café for a bit of a chat someday! It’s been two weeks since I last saw you… you must be getting tired of hearing the same things over and over again, and I do need some inspiration on story topics. Write soon! — Quentin