Have you ever heard silence? No I mean it, think a little have you ever actually heard silence?
Not just quiet, not the library hush, but total emphatic all encompassing, silence.
The type of silence that seems to have an intelligence behind it; something thinking not just an absence of noise but something purposefully creating, or being the cause of the situation.
I have, so had Elaine.
We had just picked up the keys from the solicitors office. It was a house clearance to do. The lady had gone into hospital suddenly and then just as suddenly died.
I won’t name the town, but the building was on a through route and had once been a hairdressers during the 1960’s-70’s. The owner lived above the shop but the business had been closed down many years ago.
We arrived to take our first look, late on a wet Thursday afternoon.
I unlocked the door and as we stepped inside, closed it behind us. Enough light fought its way through a single window for us to see by and in front of us stood a large and beautiful rocking horse, but neither Elaine nor I moved another inch forward.
Shutting that door had pitched the two of us into another world, a world of silence.
It was deliberate, you could not even hear any traffic, there was absolutely no sound in the building, just an impression of heaviness weighing down, and dreary contempt for life.
“Why’s it so quiet?”
I nearly crapped myself as Elaine’s voice reverberated around us.
“God almighty Elaine!”
“Sorry but its’ so quiet- it’s unnatural.” And then;” Mark, we’re not alone in here are we?”
I had to agree; it felt like we were being observed by something or someone that was safe knowing we couldn’t see them. We started our tour through the building but stuck close together.
It was like stepping back in time; the shabby furniture and décor perfectly in tune with the mood of the place. The old hair salon on the ground floor still had all the equipment in it; apart from the dust and cobwebs, it could have closed yesterday.
The whole place just reeked of sadness, of opportunities missed and chances squandered and everywhere heavy, total silence.
We were here to see what needed to be done and there was a lot of work before us, but we always worked well together and never shied from a challenge.
Solicitors had searched around for personal papers ETC, though as it turned out, not very well. Otherwise everything was just as she had left it except some fool had turned off the fridge which was half full of rotting food as were some of the cupboards.
Elaine and I returned at the weekend to commence our work.
Clearances can be quite sad. You are effectively winding-up the end of someone’s existence, dealing with and sorting their most personal effects. We always tried to do it with a degree of respect as we would want it done for ourselves.
It’s almost inevitable that you begin to form impressions of that person as you sort through their belongings; sometimes you even get to feel that you actually knew them.
This job was no exception.
We discovered personal correspondence that told us of divorce, affairs, broken promises and overseas liaisons. It was easy to read between the lines to find hopes and dreams dashed, of life becoming a chore and then a burden to be endured alone.
Everywhere there was sadness and the silence followed us around, watching.
I was there a lot on my own. I usually took a radio for company but it somehow seemed irreverent to put it on, so I didn’t. Instead I started talking aloud to the silence. I would explain why I was there and what I was doing at any given time. Then I started to talk about Elaine and myself, how we met, the on-going fight with cancer, how brave she was and how proud I was of her.
It may seem a strange thing to do, to you reading this, but I know that my words were not completely lost to the silence.
I began to get the impression that the mess in the kitchen, in particular the rotten food, was a cause of concern.
Thus one morning I donned rubber gloves and armed with many bin bags I tackled the lot, dragging the now empty fridge downstairs and onto the waiting truck. From there it all went direct to the dump.
On my returning I straight away felt that the gloom had lifted, something had altered in the oppressive atmosphere, this continued the more we cleared and cleaned. It was like life returning to an almost drowned body.
Our last visit was scheduled for a Saturday morning. Just odds and ends to clear up and a large cupboard in the salon to break up and dump. By now we had a firm impression of this lady.
Early on glamorous and hard- working, later on feisty but alone and lonely too.
We wanted to cheer her up so we brought along a radio and a can of hairspray.
Elaine said that she could imagine her on a busy Saturday morning bustling around her clients while the latest music played in the background; so as we worked our radio played ‘Sounds of the Sixty’s’ the music of her hay-day and we played it LOUD.
Just before we left Elaine took the hairspray and sprayed it around the salon. Can a smell bring back memories to an old building as it can to us?
As we stood there Elaine said to me :”Have you left the outside door open?”
“No it’s all closed up now, why?”
“Because I can hear the traffic.”
Monday 18th January 2021.
Elaine’s funeral is tomorrow at 12.30pm. It feels like I’ve been working towards this day for months and months, but it will actually be exactly two weeks to the day that she died.
A lot of the official stuff is well underway, thanks so much to the help that I’ve had, yet I still cannot accept that she has gone and is not coming home to me again.
Even though I held her hand as life left her, I am still in a sort of denial. Maybe it’s a form of shock or perhaps a form of self- protection, either way reality remains firmly on the outside of my world.
All is set and ready for tomorrow but I have something here at home to prepare tonight.
Originally Elaine was to have spent her last night above earth here with me, but pandemic regulations have put an end to that; so I’ve devised a sort of ritual of my own even though her body won’t be present.
On our kitchen table I have arranged a selection of her favourite possessions. Among them her amethyst engagement ring, earrings that I gave her and those she wore in the hospice. A black and white picture of me taken when I was in my late teen’s ; some little vintage pieces that she loved and kept.
There is also a small enamelled heart-shaped box, which I bought her when we were first together, it contains the lock of her hair I took at the funeral home; and there is a framed photo of her with Bruce, in which they both look so happy,(this photo will also be present at the funeral).
A light is to keep vigil all night; it is to be her LED ‘candle’ a Christmas present which was at the hospice with her and glowing when she died.
I promised her I would sleep downstairs this night on our settee and I intend to do just that. I will have covering me the green and gold blanket given to Elaine at Christmas by the hospice staff, and present on her bed from then on, to the end.
There is a small bottle of champagne given to us months ago so I set-up two glasses we often used, that had belonged to my parents, and pour some into each, and then I toast-“To us, forever.”
Perhaps to some (if not all!) of you, I sound like a sad bastard doing all this; but Elaine would have expected it thinking her body would be here this night; and it is important to me, a kind of farewell without actually saying goodbye.
I stay up quite late; while I’m awake it’s not yet funeral day but when I sleep and wake it will be. I’m settled ok on the sofa, it’s neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, but I’m indifferent to that, what matters most now is to get through tonight and then tomorrow.
I lay awake listening to the clock on the wall and the gentle tick tick from the woodburner as it cools down, its work done for this night. The fridge-freezer in the larder adds its voice, at set intervals to the orchestra. Though I can see little in the glow from the kitchen, the familiar I know is all around me.
As sleep begins to take me I wonder if she might come and say goodbye this night; she will know where I am tonight of all nights. I drift off still wondering.
I’m awake, well half so, everything the same? I think it is; the faint glow from the candle barely saves me from darkness but it’s comforting nonetheless.
There is something else though, but I can’t think straight, what is it? Sleep returns again, and I’m its victim.
Dreamless I drift until waking once more. All as it was? No, but what? I half sit, listening; the small glow from the candle is still there and so is- silence.
Utter, complete and almost mesmerising silence. Deliberate.
The clock must have stopped, I can’t hear it; the fire must be cold, its contractions complete; is there a power cut, I don’t hear the fridge, I don’t hear a bloody thing!
The impression is of time stopped in this room. I don’t want to move in case I am ‘noticed’.
It’s just like when Elaine and I were stood in that hallway all those years ago, total, heavy and purposeful silence.
It’s watching me; Elaine? That you? You there? I know there will be no answer but nonetheless I hear, or feel the silence talking to me.
I still feel anger and fear at what has happened, and sadness to a depth I never knew could exist, but for a few moments this night I feel comfort; something here in this silence is talking to me lending a spark of hope, something which will become priceless to me when the real grief breaks through – there’s not going to be long to wait.
To be continued…