Sounds of the Silent, by Jess Gardner
You have asked me the question twice now. I think it is something about if I am free, but I am not certain. I say, ‘Yes, why?’ and you roll your eyes impatiently at me and take a deep breath and repeat. It’s like you’re a radio station that is not tuned in properly; the white noise distorts your voice and the sound dips in and out. You open your mouth to shape a word. It looks a bit like you’re about to sneeze as you sharply and shallowly inhale. I watch as you press your tongue to the back of your top row of teeth; you look up to the left because you’re trying not to look at me and spit bullets into my face again.
I feel awful, I really do; you seem exhausted and it’s only 8.30. I smile to try and soften the mood and ask, ‘Sorry love, could you say that again? I didn’t catch it,’ but it doesn’t help. I fear the worst; I duck for cover as I realise I’ve tripped the switch on the mine. I don’t look up, but I know the grenades are coming. I feel the noise bounce off my ear drum as it lands and then comes the piercing tone like a tuning fork, which continues to reverberate long after the fires have died down. I look back up with stinging eyes and the deadened sound of my pulse filling my head like the steady oscillation of a pendulum where the sound swings back and forth.
You open your mouth again to speak but I only feel the force of your voice, like seismic waves hitting me and bouncing off. You have screamed or shouted, either one, yet I still don’t know what you have said. All I can hear is his voice, his scream – I felt it the same way I did yours. It sounds like a fading echo, yet one that is stuck in a hall of mirrors, forever reflecting off every surface – never ceasing.
You walk away. I am sure you are still speaking because I can see your jaw moving up and down; perhaps it’s for me, perhaps it’s to yourself, but all I can hear are those footsteps, your slow, unsteady footsteps as you walk across the carpet. I can hear them, each foot as it steps and sinks into the muck and blood in the field; I can hear the saturated ground squelch from all the rain we had that day – your last day.
I rise from my chair and walk toward the kitchen. It’s just like the day after: the silence of the men, the birds, the skies, the ground – we all kept our voices until we were sure of the peace that we were promised had arrived. I walk to the sink in the kitchen and glance both ways out of the window. Silence makes me wary: no one is ever secure in their faith in the other side; there’s always a chance the truce will be broken.
I run the tap into the kettle; I miss that sound. The stuttering descant of the machine gun is drowned out by the melody of running water. I hear a muted call of the captain over my shoulder; to this day I do not know his words. I duck my head at the sound of the voice and clasp my hands over my helmet....my helmet...my helmet! It is not on my head; I have no time to search, I just dive and try to leave my ears uncovered for any further orders.
I heard the ratatatat of the guns, felt the bullets whip past my ears and the next thing to pass into my ears was the sound of you yelling. I felt the scream pierce my ear drums like a pin to a balloon and it was then that the sound deflated and died. Jock...no dack... no dj, dj, dj like a train; dj-oh, no dj-e, dj-ah; yes ahhhh like a scream; dj-ah-cuh. Jack, yes Jack; why can’t I say your name, it’s like I’ve forgotten how it sounds. I call your name, over and over again. You do not answer.
I open my eyes and there yours are, staring right back into mine; but wait, the colour – it has changed. Your hazel eyes seem greener, even grey now. I look across your brow, which seems smaller. The lines that mark your face I assume to be from the shrapnel that has marked us all. Your nose; your lips; your cheeks; all seem so different.
You help me up from the cold ground, but you struggle. It takes three attempts to get me to my feet. Have you forgotten all your training? I flinch at the sound of a low flying plane; I twist to look up at the sky – there is no sign of one in the sky. Wait, what’s all this... this steam? A kettle: you lift it up and pour the hot water out of the spout into two mugs. The water turns to a warm sunset. I look at you and see your mouth open, yet you pause and reach out for my hand and hold it tight. You say nothing.
It has just gone 3.30pm when I start putting on my thin crepe cardigan over my overly –optimistic strapless turquoise dress and brace myself, newspaper in hand, for the torrent of rain that is relentlessly lashing up against the office window. I say a brief and sweeping goodbye to my colleagues, as I swerve in and out of the desks toward the exit.
I am already grinding my teeth as I start the engine; I slam the car into first gear with such aggression my hand slips and I punch the CD player with my knuckles. I race to the exit of the car park in frenzy. When I pull up to the junction to exit the car park on the main road, I have to stop and wait for an individual, who seems completely unconcerned by the weather. They cross in front of my bonnet very slowly, seeming totally unaware that it is raining and that I am waiting. I begin to bite the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from shouting. Unable to hold back my frustration I honk my horn vigorously, bashing the palm of my hand into the centre of the steering wheel. I notice the figure turn their head towards my car, yet they do not seem very concerned. I struggle to see clearly through the vats of water pouring onto my windscreen, which my wipers have little chance to keep up with.
My face drops when I finally see that the person is in fact an elderly lady; she appears untouched by the weather with a fluffed up greying perm, a pearl necklace and a dry, baby pink, thick weave knitted cardigan. There is something familiar about that combination, so familiar that it makes me pause a moment. I inhale and suddenly my nose is filled with the combined scents of lavender and talcum power. It is a sweet, yet dry smell that reminds me of...
“Nan!” I feel my mouth blurt out, almost like an involuntary gag reflex. It is not until a moment later that I register exactly what I have said. In the driving rain the lady seems not to disappear, but become clearer to my sight. I can see the windscreen start to mist up; apparently I am breathing heavily. I hastily rub my door window with my sleeve, to catch another glimpse of the lady. She has stopped and turned and is looking directly at me. “Nan!” I cry again, and the lady smiles, just as she used to. Her powder blue eyes widen and I see her mouth grow to a smile. The creases, the dimples, the slightly lazy left eye, are an identical match.
I open the door in panic and excitement and the rain curves and whips my side. I struggle to get out, I feel like something is drawing me back, then I realise I still have my seatbelt on. I squint against the vicious streams of water that pummel down at the ground, yet she remains totally still, stoic with her wide, slightly metallic smile. The cars that have formed a queue behind me start to beep and rev their engines impatiently, as I rush over to where my Nan is standing and usher her gently but briskly back to my car.
The car rocks after I throw myself back into my seat to jump in out of the rain. I brush my sodden, knotted hair out of my face, so that it looks like it has been slicked back with gel. My forehead is exposed without my side fringe there to cover it. I see my face in the rear view mirror: my make-up has run, almost washed off, my hair swept back. I look very young. I embrace my Nan, soaking in that light, musky scent that seems to drift about the air. She looks well: her cheeks look freshly pinched and her eyes bright. When we embrace I feel the soft padding of her broad back and shoulders and her chest which acts as a cushion between us. I run my damp palms over the soft, dry pink fabric, counting the loops as my thumb passes over them like I used to. It is then that I hear her voice; she has not uttered a sound until now. Her voice is a soprano and she utters each sound with a sing-song movement. I listen with content to the story I have heard time and again as I rest my head upon her thick shoulder. She tells it just the same, encountering names like ‘thingy’ and ‘what’s-his-name’ and ‘you know’ until I tie myself in knots trying to figure out who said what and who did that.
I begin to giggle and try to smother the sound into her shoulder, but it’s no use: she hears.
“What?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say and smile. “It’s just nice to see you again, that’s all.”
Something hits me on the back of the head. I turn and see on the seat beside my leg is a stone, one that would fit inside my fist. I look at the window for a crack, but I cannot find one. Attached to the stone is a rolled up piece of paper. The paper looks like it is torn out of a newspaper. I examine it closely and I see in small print in the right hand corner a date: 28th September. I remember that date because it was when the family celebrated Nan’s birthday, despite it actually being in December. There wasn’t time. On the newspaper there appears to be part of an obituary:
She lived every minute, every hour, every day to the fullest.
I look into her eyes and see them turn watery as if the rain has finally reached her. The powder blue, now diluted, dissolves into the greying white of her eye, until the colour is saturated, speckled white, grey and blue like granite. She asks me the time; I glance at my watch and tell her ‘twenty to four’. She tells me it was time she was going.
‘Wait, before you go, I have something to tell you,’ I say desperately.
I jump at the sudden loud thumping at my window. I turn my head to see a drenched scowling and stubbly masculine face. I wind down my window to speak to him, but before I can he shrieks at me, “What the hell are you playing at!”
My mouth is dry and as I go to speak my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and my voice gets trapped in my throat. I swallow hard to try and encourage saliva to lubricate my arid mouth.
“Sorry, I was just talking to my Nan”.
The man’s scowl deepens into the trenches of his forehead as he leans to look around to the passenger seat.
“There’s no one there!” he spits with vehemence.
I turn my head to realise that he is right. The seat next to me is empty, except for that newspaper clipping.
“Oh...” I say softly, “she’s gone now...she does that.”
I see the bulge of the jaw from the man at my door as he clearly bites down on his back teeth. He looks at me incredulously, yet says nothing more. He slams the door and strides back to his running car.
I blink heavily with tiredness and attempt to try and focus my eyes on the road. I catch sight of the time on the CD player. It reads 3.40. I put the car into first gear and wait until the road is clear to turn out. I go to move but then suddenly something makes me instinctively slam on my breaks. A white Ford comes racing around the corner, screeching its tyres across the road. I breathe deeply with relief and a hint of lavender tickles the rim of my nose. I swiftly turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction and drive off the scenic route home.
Looks to Kill
She was sitting alone on a table for two; I was queuing up for a latte: grande with vanilla and I caught sight of this familiar figure out of the corner of my eyes. I was originally going to just get it to go, but something, I don’t what, made me change my mind. Perhaps it was the way she was sitting so stoically and yet so pensive, endlessly slowly stirring her drink, or the wave of nostalgia that came flooding over me. The first time I saw her was on a poster on the side of the number 42 bus: the one I used to catch for school. She looked identical, like she hadn’t aged ten years as I had. Her auburn hair still had that flawless shine to it, even under the dim and dying tungsten light in the coffee house. Her eyes were still that impossible blue: almost a neon blue that was equivalent to the bar and club signs I saw on that post A-level trip holiday to Magaluf. Her lips, poised elegantly so that they just touched one another, still looked as smooth and as red as they always did in the magazines: the colour of strawberries when they are first picked in the spring.
I have to admit that I felt the knotted and twisted sensation in my lower abdomen when I realised who it was. I wondered what she was doing there; she was probably working on her latest film but I didn’t get the chance to ask.
She was wearing a green coat; it reminded me of Paddington Bear’s actually. She looked almost mannequin like with her pretty floral dress to her knees, her coat and her fixed expression. I wondered why she still had her coat on since the coffee shop was clearly humid from all the hot steam from the stainless steel machines behind the counter. It was indeed a thick overcoat and I for one was rather on the sweaty side. I wondered if she was perhaps cold, or just unaware that she still had it on; perhaps that was her look, maybe she didn’t ever take her coat off. Maybe she was a mannequin and only changed clothes with the seasons - I mean she always had the perfectly styled hair, the fresh make-up and the perfect body shape for every type of clothing. Only mannequins and Barbie look good in everything.
The queue seemed to take an age to move down, yet I didn’t mind; waiting was like window shopping. I eyed her, from her softly creased black ballet pumps, up her sheer cream shins, up over the light waves and rustles of the hem of her crepe dress, brushed the slight curve of her chest, and wandered over her loose tousles of auburn hair that had strayed from her precise bun. The strands seemed not to move, yet hung so delicately and without direction or purpose.
I started to get agitated by the time I had ordered and was waiting for my drink, the second seat at her table was still empty, but I didn’t know for how long. I looked around like an alert cat, watching for any predators. I watched as she finally lifted her mug to her lips: I saw the blood red stain appear on the rim, and then slowly begin to dribble down the side as the liquid mingled and danced with her make-up. I could see the steam looping and dancing out of the top round which her fingers were tightly bound together. Yet her slender pale hands seemed not to rouge from holding the warm mug. The skin remained entirely evenly coloured from fingertip to wrist.
Finally my order came; I hastily grabbed the mug from the counter and made my advances toward the empty seat. In my eager approach I was unaware of the angle at which I held my drink and the steamed milk ebbed and flowed against the rim until it rose into a wave and crashed over the lip, kissing the mouth of my hand between my thumb and index finger. My strides quickened so that I could reach the table to rest down my mug. After placing it at the table, I quickly gave my hand a suck, draining the blood away from the surface.
The female figure showed no sign of awareness or movement until I pulled back the darkened pine chair away from the table, dragging it across the faux-slate floor tiles. I saw her ears prick up, almost twitch like agile feline ears. Her eyes, so blue there could have been electric currents surging through them, slowly rolled up to meet mine. It was then that I first saw it.
Now sitting in front of her, I could see that the cream emulsion that was her skin was indeed just a mask. I traced the lines beneath her epidermis, which ran across her cheeks, through her eyelids, around her nasal structure and down into her neck. I noticed her faultless décolletage was actually flawed. Not only did I notice the lines that ran beneath the surface, but I could see the fine cracks running across the boned outline like a damaged paper-mâche figure. As I moved my eye outward toward her shoulder I thought I saw what was a lose thread. I leant over the varnished table to reach my hand toward the thread, but then I noticed something far more curious: my reflection in the sheen of the table. Normally this would have not caught my attention, yet at this moment I saw the lightness of my forearm (which unlike the figure, was not concealed by a sleeve) move across the table to the female form, where I saw that her hands created no reflection. At first I thought it must have been the angle I was viewing this from, or even just the shadows of her hands that may have been covering any reflection. Sadly, the more I stared, the more I realised that she had no reflection.
I touched the figure’s hand and proceeded to hold it in my own warm, rather sweaty palm. Hers felt very cool to the touch and as dry and rough as tree bark. She did not move away or even speak, but I saw her eyes behind the outer mask meander heavily, up my body to meet my gaze. Her eyes, still a fantastic electric blue, seemed not to glisten but to spark sporadically as if the eyes were electro-statically charged. It was like watching an electrical breakdown as the ribbon of electricity flickered between filaments and slowly sprayed a display of sparks. After this light show the irises seemed to dull and slowly dissolve into the black of the pupil. There was no dilation of the pupils and it was still rather dim under the flicker of the tungsten lamps on the ceiling; the colour just seemed to fizzle and die away.
The auburn strands that softly framed her face, began to move of their own accord. I began to think I was hallucinating, that I was sitting before Medusa, watching her hair of snakes dance and curl and a few hissing with their green tongues writhing around. I watched the hair dance and slowly begin to fray and curl, becoming ever more blunt and coarse, until they were no longer strands of hair but copper wires.
In shock I went to move away, but the friction of my palm over the coarse cast-like hand below caused the hand to start to crumble. Large sheets of wafer thin membrane began to peel away, just how a child will peel off the PVA glue that she has smothered her hand in during art class. As the figure began to shed her skin all over like a snake, I could see more clearly the lines all across her corpus were interconnected like a series of wires in a machine. The lines, blue, red, brown, yellow and green, criss-crossed over one another and in places seemed to twist and knot. The knots looked as if they were pulsating, like miniature beating hearts. Yet the beating rhythms were all syncopated: some were faster than others, some slow and drawn out. I watched as one or two began to beat so rapidly that they started to struggle to beat, almost as if they were constricting themselves. It was like watching someone choke. Then like a large cyst, the knots burst open like a hundred fingers reaching out. The metallic coiled fingers crackled and hissed as white light bounced between them like the hot ambers from a sparkler.
I looked back toward the dulled eyes of the figure, yet they were now closed. They were closed without any sign of a joining line or crease between the eye lids – just one smooth surface like a blank mannequin.
I took a magazine out of my shopper and rifled through the pages for the image of the former beauty. Looking down at the image, I saw the face I once knew and wished to be. The flawless fawn complexion, carmine lips and ultramarine blue eyes were all infused with warmth, yet as I looked up, the figure had decayed to a corpse the colour of cement, only infused with the short circuiting of the wires that now hung heavily from the bare frame.
I opened up my silver pocket mirror and took a brief look at my face to check that my make-up hadn’t run. I wiped the dark smudges from beneath my lower lashes and puckered my lips. As I swept my fringe out from my eye I noticed a line.
A dark blue line that was running from my forehead to cheek under the surface of my skin. I quickly closed the mirror. As I stood up to leave I pushed the thick, glossy magazine toward the form set opposite me. As I walked away I turned and looked back at the form; I saw the auburn hair still had that flawless shine to it, even under the dim and dying tungsten light in the coffee house.
What is this? I don’t remember there being anything else here but me. So small you are. Why you don’t even come up half way to my knee. You have so much hair. Not like mine though; it is shorter, shinier and the colour of my blouse today, through which I can see my dark under clothing. Your hair though; it is everywhere. Why is it everywhere? Why you do not wear clothes to cover yourself? What are these pointed triangles above your eyes? How do you do that with your eyes? How do you make the black so tall and slim? It looks like my lips, only flipped on its side. The blackness swims in a circular pool of gold, which seems to attract all the light we are in. There are fine lines, not as red as the ones I sometimes seem to have in the white of my eye on occasions; they are darker, more of a burnt orange colour, similar to the colour of my hair that I had for around 4 visits. The lines look like the fine creases entrenched within my clothes when I look pale, with dark circles and messy hair.
What is this redness that seems to loop about you below your head? I see something hang from it, like the charms from my ears. It looks like a miniature of you, yet it is silver. Wait what is this black mark upon it?
Curious, I am yet to come across these symbols in this combination. Wait there is more, as your charm turns on its hook, I can see another combination.
Again, this combination is foreign to me. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but I am sure you will be here on the next visit. I like how you dance and twist making shapes like the curve of my foot upon those four feet of yours. Do you not have arms and hands? That must be.....
.....difficult to do your hair. You see me, as I do mine now? I push my hair backwards with this spiked tool many times; it is all I seem to do. I sometimes use this...
...oh why this device in my hand. When did that get there? You see how I hold it above my hair and the hair wanders around like my fingers.
Wait. You have gone.
Oh there you are. Wait I seem to be moving downwards toward you, as you sit between my legs. I am never on my hands and knees; usually I just stand, twisting around to see the back of my body or head, or I am leaning forward as if to get a good look at something.
Do you see that fog? That fog right before my face. Look at where I am pointing, in front of where I am moving my mouth. Yes you see it; it is in front of you also now. Why is that your tongue? Mine is pink also. Why are you wiping the fog away with your tongue? I am certainly not. Our faces seem to be in contact with one another; you are rubbing your tongue over my face and I seem to be baring my teeth back at you in return.
How snugly you in my arms! I am sure we will be partners in our visits very soon; I would enjoy the change of scenery.
Why have you jumped out of my arms? Where have you.....