Karl had an obsessive need for quiet.
Mary felt her eyes lingering on his face, cold now after years of silence. It had been a handsome face. Once upon a time, the strong chin and high cheekbones had seemed chiselled, manly. Now everything about him was a hard edge, jutting and serious.
“It’s going to rain,” she offers up a useless observation as a means of breaking the stifling silence at the breakfast table.
He nods once in acknowledgement before turning his attention back to the gray sea beyond the window. He’d removed the clocks. The incessant ticking was intrusive, he’d said.
“To what?” Mary couldn’t help thinking.
The house was devoid of anything to intrude upon—except more silence. It felt even more dead without the steady singing of the clocks, a heartbeat suddenly cut off.
Karl had never liked unnecessary noise, even before the children had left, preferring instead to smother himself in the quiet of his own thoughts. Mary did not like being smothered, and she disliked the way he described the children as having left, like it was a choice.
She carefully places her spoon back into her now empty breakfast bowl and secretly delights in the sudden shrill song of metal against china. Karl looks up with a frown but doesn’t comment. He would probably have replaced all of the cutlery with paper substitutes if he could.
Karl couldn’t understand Mary’s sudden need for childishness and chaos. After the children left, it was as if she felt the need to fill the gap with something of her own, unnecessary noises, words. Mary loved to chit chat. It made Karl’s skin crawl. She had positively pouted when he got rid of the clocks. They should have been disposed of long ago, but he had allowed them to stay until their usefulness ran out. No need to keep track of time anymore. He stared unseeing out of the window. It was always the same view, the same overhanging cloud forever threatening rain but never falling, the sea a restless animal, growling, biting outside their window.
Mary hopes that today the weather will change. It hasn’t done so yet, but she enjoys the sensation of hoping, like drinking soda too fast, the fizz slowly rising in her and lifting her up. Mary also hopes that today the children will come home, but she knows that they won’t. Anyway, seeing them here would be wrong, here in the home that is not really home. This new place was not what Mary had been expecting, but then again, she had never really given it much thought, preferring instead to dwell on the present, on the now, instead of the future, the unknown end.
Karl was not a religious man and had never expected a gate, pearly or otherwise. What he had not been expecting, however, was the door. His own front door, muted in colour and slightly out of focus, like a painting held under water. It was all the more disturbing for being a familiar object in an unfamiliar place.
The rest of the house had been the same, still with the slightly faded gray tones. The clocks were still there, in a place that presumably no longer kept time. Why should he have to suffer the steady reminder tick of seconds that could no longer be his? It had not taken long to smash them all. It had been exceptionally satisfying. Orgasmic almost. The sea had been a nice touch, though. They never had a sea view in the old place, just other people’s houses spying out from behind net curtains. Now the gray body of the sea surrounds them on all sides.
Mary had always wanted a sea view. Admittedly in her imagination, the sun had been shining and the sea itself had been an endless field of calm blue instead of the cold gray monster that chewed hungrily at the edge of their garden. Mary worried at first that the tide would come in and devour the entire house, but after a few days they came to realize that the sea in their Heaven was unchanging. She still thought in terms of days. Although there was no change between night and day here and no need to sleep. She feels certain that time is passing though, if not here, then at least somewhere, and so still she stubbornly refers to things as “yesterday,” “this morning,” and, although less and less frequently, “tomorrow.” Mary also refers to the new place as Heaven but can’t be certain.
Karl, wrapped in his blanket of silence, does not feel the need to refer to it as anything, even inside his own head. They were here now and that, if he ever felt the need to consider it, was that. Where they were exactly or for how long were details he did not feel the need to trouble himself with. He had the sea and he had his silence and that was all he needed. The thought of the children had bothered Karl but only for the briefest of moments. They were, after all, adults now and quite capable of being left alone, which is why he had left it as long as he had, picking a time which would be most convenient for all involved. He knew that Mary would be upset in a loyal sort of way but that couldn’t be helped. When she arrived at the gray house not long after himself, he had given only the faintest of internal shrugs. She was allowed to make her own decisions and it hardly mattered anymore. Not here. He went back to watching the sea.
Mary worried about the mess. She did not like the thought of other people having to clear up after her and wished she had had the presence of mind to lay down some newspaper first. She also worried about the children. She knew that they were grown up and had lives of their own, but she worried about how it would be for them now, after. A dull ache in the back of her head, a constant gnawing which came to the surface in the hot heat of panic whenever she thought about them, although––and she felt a sharp stab of guilt––probably not as much as she should. She felt she should be suffering more, for what she had done, for what she had left behind. She wanted to feel the consequences of her actions, and yet, try as she might, she simply couldn’t, as if her body and mind had forgotten how to feel. Apart from the external worry of what had been, there was really nothing to worry about here. It was peaceful, almost boring, but not so much as to make her uncomfortable.
Mary sends a smile across the table at Karl, looks at his face and his eyes, so much like the sea he watches, and uses her voice to slice through the silence.
“I think I shall make soup this afternoon.”
Karl responds with one nod and turns his face back to the window.
Mary bustles off to the pantry, which is always full, and starts to chop onions. She smiles internally at the gentle sigh of the falling knife through the white, waxy skin of the onions and listens to the sound of silence slowly breaking around her, falling with a forbidden tinkling noise to the ground. She got into the habit of shuffling her feet, barely lifting them off the ground and placing them back down in rough sliding sighs. The floor is littered with stolen sounds, smashed out of the air by her own voice or the touch she can create against everyday objects. Karl doesn’t know, he can’t see them; the stolen noises greedily snatched out of thin air then carelessly discarded on the floor. Mary sees them all around her, constant reminders of her private rebellion, colored shards of sound gathered round her feet like hungry pigeons. Every smuggled whisper or stifled cough is a hard-earned victory against the never-ending silence. Karl thinks he’s won, but Mary cherishes her unseen triumphs, moves her feet through them every day, and feels their echoes through her fingertips.
Karl can feel one of his headaches coming on. He pinches the bridge of his nose and exhales through his mouth. If he thought about it, he might ask himself why there were headaches in Heaven. But he doesn’t think about it, not ever. In fact, he concentrates very hard on not thinking about it. He might not have been expecting anything but he knew that he had been hoping for something. It had been a long time since Karl had tried hoping for anything, and he was a little out of practice, but what he hoped––what he wanted––was a little peace. A blackout, an endless sleep, a point of being that was suspended somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness that he didn’t have to engage with at all. Simply to be pulled along by a neverending stream of nothingness, feeling nothing, missing nothing, knowing nothing. If he had to choose, he would not have chosen the gray house. The best he could do was to make silence his friend, wrap himself up in it, feel its weight on him like a duvet, hot and feather-filled with unsaid words. But even the things unsaid left an echo.
Sometimes, Mary thinks she can even taste the words, the sounds that were unmade. They wanted to be made, to be brought to life and they hovered there in mid-creation. They left a slightly smoky taste in the air. Mary licks her lips––a definite aftertaste. Why has she never noticed it before, in the real home? She misses it sometimes but only when she thinks about it. Mary tries hard not to think about it. This is what she has now and she will enjoy it as best she can. She tried going outside a couple of times but something about the air didn’t seem right. Not bad exactly, a little heavy maybe but not threatening. Not exactly. It was the suspension, the feeling of something almost happening, she thought. When she went outside she felt the whole world hold its breath, invisible eyes followed her every movement, waiting for her to do something. She didn’t know what this something was, what was expected of her, worried in case she did the wrong thing and so, scared, she ran back inside, back into the silence and the taste of unsaid words.
Karl watches Mary walk back in, two steaming bowls of soup in hand. She places his in front of him and he gives a curt nod of thanks, taking care not to dip his head too far forward for fear of spilling his headache over into his lap. It swam around somewhere behind his eyes and made it difficult to focus. He should lie down after lunch. He wasn’t really hungry. He was never hungry here, but Mary insisted on making three meals a day anyway; cups of tea, biscuits to be nibbled on. Old habits. It was so almost what life used to be like, so almost normal. It is a house of almost, a home of nearlies, spread out before them, the sense of something about to begin but held back. Karl has had enough of almost.
He raises the spoon to his lips and blows gently on the steaming soup.
“Is it nice?” Mary asks even before he’s had a chance to taste it.
“I haven’t even had a chance to taste it,” he says evenly.
“Well, go on.” She is eager, practically manic, like a small dog locked up for too long. She can almost feel her tail wagging, imagining the sweeping noise it would make against the carpet. The thump as it hits her sides. She smiles.
Karl puts the spoon in his mouth, still too hot, unable to taste anything. “Very good,” he says.
Mary smiles at him. They both knew he would say that. Like actors in a play, they are saying their correct lines.
Out over the horizon the sky is changing, the clouds curling in on themselves, bulging and expanding. The sea begins to roll a little faster, waves break a little harder. The gray becomes a bruise, a slap in the sky, a black eye. Mary looks out of the window across the changing sea and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, listening to the scrape of skin-on-skin slice through the silence, and watches as the broken sounds fall into her lap. She glances over at Karl.
“Oh, look,” she says, “the weather’s starting to turn at last.”
They both look out of the window at the changing skies and watch as the rain begins to fall.