By: Amanda Fuller
The first thing I learn about London, is that there are many kinds of silence.
Where I am from, it is rarely silent. The very moment that it seems that a silence might occur, someone will step in and fill it. Often, more than one someone, all at the same time. It is all noise, colour and chaos. Silence was an alien thing, to be avoided and suppressed – even when all of the very worst things were happening to us. When the noise of the shells and the guns joined with the terrified screams of the children in the streets and the roar and rumble of the tanks outside our splintered doors, we would meet in moments of calm, with what little we had, and raise our voices to drown out the death and the fear and the not knowing what was next. We would try to find some comfort, for then at that time, silence meant death.
In London, my new home, silence screams at me like an angry demon, pushes my mouth closed and my eyes down, holds its hand across my face making it hard to breathe. There is the tired silence on the trains, the buses; the silence of strangers who know the rules, and expect us all to know them too. The frightened silence of the deserted streets at night; berating me for my restless walking, chasing me back to my small room. The silence of the man behind the desk in the centre I am obliged to visit each week; a practised, artful silence that is aware of my discomfort and pulls words that will perhaps condemn me, unbidden, from my lips.
This is a familiar story, but one that nobody wants to tell. It is rarely even on the news now. When I arrived here it was all that seemed to be reported. Night after night I would press mute on the handset and stare at the screen, watching the boats come. Only rescues were shown, the few hauled to safety. But most of us could and cannot swim.
The boat was overcrowded, of course, they always are. The days and nights of hunger and thirst and sickness and pain were all for nothing, in the end. It is extraordinary what the human body is capable of, and what it will do to survive. When the boat overturned, I lost my children in the chaos, and panic. I remember being buried under bodies, my screams silenced by the crush upon my lungs. Then, I was in the water. I somehow found something to cling onto; a dead man in a rubber jacket. One by one the screams around me fell silent. I had known that all my own were lost the moment the boat overturned, so why did I cling to that corpse for so long? I ask myself these questions, but find no answers.
Not all of the silence is from outside. It is when this city is at its noisiest, that I become most aware of the silence within me. I have lost the ability to hear myself, and I do not know what to call my own silence. It is not like the others. This silence is an inside thing and it is hungry. It is slowly eating its way out, eating me alive. I have lost too much and left behind too little. There is no-one waiting for me in the place before, and no-one for me to wait for here; they are all dead. The silence within me is a vast, still pool of grief, in which all my hopes have drowned, along with those whom I have lost.
I survive here, though. The nights are longer than the days because I cannot sleep. I leave my bed and lock the door to my small room, creep past the silent sleepers in the other rooms in this place – I never see these people, I do not know who they are – and wander the streets until dawn. South London streets are silent too, but not in an unpleasant way. It is often raining and I like the rain; it is as though the skies are crying for me and for what I have lost. Sometimes I hear whispers that aren’t really there, the voices of children; soft laughter, playful teasing. I push them back down into the darkness, the silence is easier to bear. Often, I pass people as I walk at night, they might try to speak to me. Other lost people. Some have bottles or cans with them, trying to drown the silence. Perhaps it works, for a time.
I do not know anyone here from before, but if I did, I would not seek them out or speak of what I have lost. So here is another silence; this is necessary, for me, to speak of what I have seen, to find my voice, would be to lose my mind. It is best to be alone. What better or easier place to be alone, than this vast, crowded city? There are statues and streets and parks in which to lose myself, in which to wander with small grey birds and animals. They accept me in their midst; a small, grey person who sometimes feeds them scraps when she has some.
I am an unperson, with no past, present or future. The past is as if it never happened. There is nothing from there except myself, so I might never have been in those places, done and seen and heard those things. The present, the me here, in this city, merely exists. With no past to draw strength from and no present to spring from, I cannot think of a future. And yet, I go on. Yesterday, one of the other night walkers spoke to me, and I became real, for a moment, and felt no fear. He spoke to me of a life filled with pain, and grief, and terrible violence, and then he cried, because I heard him. Perhaps, one day, someone will hear me, too.
In the meantime, the silence is everything, and I am learning to embrace it. It is escape, protection, self-preservation. It is a habit that cannot be broken, a compulsion that must be obeyed. The silence screams from inside and outside and it is who I am, where I am, and what I must both acknowledge and overcome.
There are many kinds of silence. Mine is the kind that screams, that scars. The only thing I have that is truly mine, I would gladly give it up.
I would gladly give it up.
Amanda Fuller turned forty this year and is almost certainly in the throes of a mid-life crisis. A mother of two, she attempts – with varying results – to juggle parenting, a full time IT job, studying part-time for her MA in Creative Writing, performing at spoken word events in London and very occasional naps.