The Voice of Nothing
by Nathan Mackrill, Year 11, Barker College
Is it the sea you hear in me?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
~ ‘Elm’, by Sylvia Plath
The only word I could find to describe the silence between us was ‘crushing’. Every time we met eyes, you would look away and turn the side of your face towards the window so I could only see the little greying bristles that ran down your jaw. Your jaw was pressed down hard. Its outline was tense and chiselled into your profile.
It was hard for me to imagine that you were still the same man I had married. It was painful for me to admit that everything that happened between us was in some way voluntary. No one had made me stay with you; no one had made me love you.
It was overcast, and the sky was tinted with a passive mauve. You turned towards me. Your saddened, droopy eyes hung with limp foreboding. The mauve came through the glass and reflected in the cobalt of your eyes. They had always been the eyes I had turned to in my hour of need, but now I had fallen out of favour with them. Silvery wisps of your hair twitched in the breeze that flowed through the doorway as you opened it. My eyes remained lifeless. They were bland and grey, without sparkle. The breeze made several attempts at lifting my hair, which stayed stiffly curled on my shoulders in its various shades of brunette.
Everything about me was a whittled down version of you. My hair was only two shades lighter than yours; my skin had seen less sun than yours, and my smile never received the same level of exposure.
I understood everything you meant to say, even if you remained silent. We had lived in silence for so long. I had told myself that it didn’t matter because love was hard to find… and even harder to keep. I had told myself that what we had was special, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I didn’t need special anymore. Our lives had always been parallel; never meeting but nevertheless following the same doomed trajectory.
Your jaw unclenched, and you opened your mouth to speak. “Don’t… spea-kk!” I yelled, my voice losing all trace of conviction as I let my words be lost in the breeze.
You held my gaze, squinting slightly so that your frayed eyebrows overshadowed your eyes. Your eyebrows had not yet acquired the same dusty grey as your hair, leaving them as stark reminders of your youth. “We’re too old to be fighting like this,” you mumbled. I walked past you, out the doorway.
I slid the golden band off my left hand and slung 37 years of marriage down the steps. It clinked down the whole flight and sank into the sand. I went to turn around and glare at you as the ring hit the last plank step, but instead I straightened my back and placed one foot at a time on each of the steps. I hid the grimaces flashing across my face as my heart seized up with each step.
A drumming came from behind me, then your voice yelling through the wind telling me to come back. I stood on the last step, waiting for you to come down and meet me. We had performed this dance many times before.
I held out my hand and watched your mouth curl into a sheepish smile as you took it. You squeezed it and pressed your lips to my ring finger. “Do you want to go find it?” you asked, trying to cover up the relief in your voice. We walked together, away from the steps and down onto the softened dunes that gave way to the beach.
Tufty, silver grass clumped in pockets along the ridges of the dunes. To see the angular glass structure of the beach house perched in the dunes now felt incongruous and clumsy. Even the wind rebelled against its placement, rattling its doors and windows. Under the moody sky, the wide glass panels that made up its walls reflected abstracted clouds with an almost magical glassiness.
It is hard even now for me to justify the disappointment I felt when we found my wedding ring. It was poking out of the matte-grey sand with the sapphire sunk. You plucked it out of the dunes and dusted the remaining grains off. Your suppressed ecstasy sent pangs of ambivalence through me.
My stomach moved in circular motions, solidifying then liquifying, as you slid it back onto my finger and looked up at me like a dazed schoolboy. The silence you maintained carried some unfathomable reverence that I had never seen in you before.
The wind swirled my hair around my face in tangled strands. Through my squinted eyes, it was only the far-off beach and its clawing waves that I could see. I turned to you and saw that you were smiling. Your eyes were bright, heavy with virtues I knew I did not possess: kindness, patience… love. You were clasping my hand so firmly because your need for family was always greater than mine. You had our son’s eyes. Even when he was young, and I was weighed down by motherly affection, it was always clear to me that it would be you whom he preferred; it would be you who gave him the love and time I could not. And now the wind was picking up and he had joined the adult world, there was a hole in your life. There was no hole as there should have been in my life. I cried no tears for our son. Nor had I cried tears for you since I was young and beautiful. The only tears I cried were for myself. You turned to me, and I told you I was crying because of the sand-laden wind.
The silence that emerged took me, grasping me with its talons, and carried me away through the five motions of grief. Denial was short lived, only fleeting past. Anger was disingenuous and painful, as I stepped on a piece of silvery driftwood. Bargaining made me convince myself that the opportunity to leave you would present itself again, as the footprints grew further away from the dunes. Depression evaporated any sense of freedom I could ever have felt at rekindling our spark. Acceptance came in languid waves that never quite reached the shoreline.
You took me down to the water’s edge and we watched the waves collide with the rocks, spraying white tufts of seawater up onto the cliffs. Then, slowly, you turned, and we made our way back up the beach, back to the house.
Even from down on the beach, where the house was a distant blur, I could sense the emptiness, its potent lovelessness. Nothing about that house signified what I wanted. Everything about it was yours. I was just an ornament in it.
Halfway up the sand, I let your hand fall. I didn’t move.
I didn’t keep following your footprints like I always had.
I made my own.
I made my own footprints back down to the water’s edge. Back down to the cool, numbing sand. It silenced me better than any pill ever had. At first, I stood there, letting the incoming tide sway around my feet. I watched as the sand was drawn back and forth around them, much the same way that I was drawn back and forth to you.
What had I deserved at the hands of fortune to cry instead of smile?
If only I could separate the then and the now. I would have no regrets, no tender bruises of memory, absolutely nothing. Weightlessness would be better than sinking.
The sky was violet with overcast and sunset. Clouds hurried across the horizon in small groups of five or six. The sun had gone, leaving only me… with my thoughts.
I let the lapping waves carve a deep ravine around my feet. I let the numbing cold climb like a fruiting vine around my legs, up my body and into my mind. The ocean numbed me.
I stood there, like an oil-painting of a tragedy: Woman Alone in Wilderness. A picture of sorrow, a face without a heart, appealing to the ocean to take her back to comfort; to safety; to love. But I was begging the ocean for none of these things. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was asking it to give me.
Whatever I asked the ocean, I received no clear response. Maybe the drizzle that began to run down my pallid face was a sign from above. Maybe the wind that began to pick up was telling me something. Maybe the sign I needed was the thunder that rolled overhead. Or maybe it was the lightning bursting cleanly through the clouds, one shade more intense than the ocean it struck. But I just stood there, staring blankly at an ivory-white cockleshell that butted itself up against my heel. I tried to think of something you would say, but it was so long since I had listened. Our time together had run like sand through arthritic fingers. Our revels were now ended, and without revels, there was no hope.
Uncoiled strands flew around my face. The raindrops stained the ombre-blonde of my hair with a darker shade of brown – my natural hair colour. The papery crests that rose and fell on the blackened sea made their way towards me in unison with the clouds that streamed past.
The cool pinpricks of rain against my skin awoke my thawing body, and for the first time, I felt a stinging redness in my eyes. I reached into my pocket and squeezed my wedding ring.
I held it like I should have held you.
I used to repeat to myself “he knows as much as I do that this is over” as a way of alleviating the doubt that came between the sheets between midnight and daybreak. The pangs of doubt that I could ever have said “I do” to a man who didn’t notice when my “I do” became an “I have to.”
I pivoted in the sand, and saw you take the final steps up to the house, your head hanging on your slumped shoulders. I watched you open the ashen-grey door. I watched you close it. I imagined I could hear the click of the lock as you shut it. I imagined you taking off your coat and hanging it in the hall. I imagined all of the things I would normally watch you do so attentively. But this time, I imagined you standing by the window in the big, glass-sided living room, watching the raindrops land and slide down the glass, blurring your view of me as I stood alone on the shore. In my beige jumper and tweed trousers, my blazer flapping in the storm.
You didn’t turn back at all when you reached the door, nor when you shut it. It was as if I was a shadow of a dream. Maybe I was that phantom dream, the one you invented just to scare yourself. That inattentive wife who idled and aimlessly talked; who didn’t listen to your stories; who didn’t iron your shirts. Maybe I didn’t fit your child’s mould of what I should have been, and in defending myself from this accusation, I say that I didn’t fit my own.
As the ring pressed into my skin – the ring I wore so willingly just a lifetime ago – the numbing came back. But this time, I resisted it. I pushed back against the wave of nothingness.
To no avail.
The storm came and the rain mixed with the tears on my face. The thunder applauded and the lightning burst. I stayed there, frozen in my knitwear, like a forlorn bronze statue.