Holly is crying in her sleep again. For the third night running Larry Pearce listens from across the hall knowing that the right thing to do would be to go her, to soothe her nightmares away. But instead, he tries to ignore her cries, the way he did last night and the night before. Only this time the harder he strives for silence, the more the sound gets under his skin. Judith stirs beside him but doesn’t wake. He wonders if she’s somehow immune to the cadences of childhood fear. Maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe she doesn’t want to remember what it’s like to be a child because of all the things that scared her back then. Larry wonders if Holly already has some kind of insight into fear and that her cries are an attempt to articulate that understanding.
After thirty minutes Holly’s still crying and Judith hasn’t moved. Larry slides out of bed, pulls on a pair of shorts and pads out to the hall. He hesitates at her open door, watching as a shaft of orange light from a streetlamp falls through a crack in the curtains and touches Holly’s face. He moves closer and stands at the foot of the cot, listening to sounds too ancient to come from the mouth of a baby.
He’s struck by her smallness, how alone she is and despite not wanting to listen, he wonders if it’s this isolation she’s trying to communicate. He realises that he’s holding his breath, trying not to add to the noise she’s making. Judith should be here. Not that she’d have any better understanding of Holly’s intent, but her presence alone would confirm that he’s not imagining any of this. These sounds are a language he doesn’t understand. They might be saying help me or I’m scared or make them go away. Something like that, but he’s only guessing, really he has no idea.
He sits in a child’s seat beside the cot even though he’s way too big for it. His vision is a little blurred, but it’s a few seconds before he realises there are tears in his eyes. He’s not sure why. What he knows is that Holly is scared and that he should help her but he doesn’t know how. He’s scared too but in searching her face for some clue as to her meaning, all he sees is a smile, the kind that says ‘sweet dreams in progress - do not disturb.’
Is that what he’s hearing - the sound of her dreams? No, it’s something more concrete, something he can almost touch. Her eyelids move but the little REM flickers reveal nothing of what’s going on inside her head. She rolls over on to her stomach, but the sounds persist. He wonders if there’s something wrong with her, if she has a medical condition, a syndrome or something he doesn’t know the name of. He’s not as clued up on childhood illnesses as he should be. It’s too easy to leave such matters to Judith. Not that he doesn’t care - after all, he’s the one watching over her right now. But even so, he feels he’s there under false pretences, because he’s not able to give her what she needs. She wants someone to take her fear away, someone to tell her everything will be okay. Larry can’t tell those lies. All he can tell her is to look for the silence inside herself, the one safe place.
As if to point her in the right direction, he reaches through the bars of the cot and touches her brow. His fingers tingle at the strange current flowing beneath her skin. He’s surprised at the nature of the revelation. Don’t say anything else, he whispers, keep it to yourself. Other parents might welcome such honesty but not Larry. Such openness in one so young worries him. He thinks about the future, when she’s older and all the pain she’ll have to face. He stands and withdraws from the room, but her sounds follow him back to his bed. Even when he crawls under the sheets and holds his hands against his ears, he can’t retrieve the silence.
Larry’s job is to listen. Ten hours a day, four days a week, sometimes five. He listens and occasionally, when the situation warrants, he makes an intervention. That doesn’t happen often; mostly it’s just listening, which means he’s doing a good job. What Larry does is monitor calls - eavesdrops, for want of a better word, on the conversations between his team and the public. It’s called Quality Control. You have a problem with the service provided by his employers, you call the centre. A technical assistant takes your call, listens to your problem and tells you how to resolve it. Larry listens to the two of you talking. His unseen presence on the line ensures his team are prompt, polite and helpful, and most importantly, it ensures they don’t take longer than ninety seconds to deal with your call, because by then there’s another customer on the line with some new problem. Of course ninety seconds is not written in stone. Some queries can be dealt with in as little as thirty or forty seconds, but others can last much longer. Those kind of problems require more thought, maybe even a consult, before they can be resolved. But even then Larry expects his team to take no more than three or four minutes, five tops. These longer calls are balanced by the shorter ones so that, over the course of the day they average out at about ninety seconds each. You’d be surprised the amount of information that can be exchanged in ninety seconds, if both parties are on the ball.
Sometimes people call the centre because they have nothing better to do than waste Larry’s time. It’s this kind of call that usually prompts an intervention. They’re not having technical problems, at least not with the service the company provides. They have other motives that don’t concern you. They’re pranksters, or they love the sound of their own voices, or they’re lonely and want someone to talk to. Whatever. You’re not the Samaritans and while they’re using up your valuable time there are other people with real problems who can’t get through. Too many calls like that, Larry stresses, can mess up the rhythm of your day.
Larry supervises a team of thirty technical assistants, each of them taking, on average, forty calls an hour. That’s twelve thousand different conversations a day he’s responsible for. Of course, he can’t listen to them all and he wouldn’t want to. What he does is, he switches between them, flitting from one conversation to another, staying just long enough to make sure your call is being dealt with in a proper and efficient manner, and if it’s a new assistant, probably monitoring the length of time it takes to deal with the problem. He’ll listen from his own workstation, or sometimes he’ll move about among the team, motivating them even though, if they’re really focused, they shouldn’t notice his presence at all. Motivation is important because the vast majority of calls are pretty dull and repetitious. Doesn’t matter what the problem is, they’ve heard it all before. Unless your problem is nothing to do with their service, in which case it isn’t their problem and he’ll make an intervention. He will cut you off.
That’s about the only time in the day he gets to himself. Those four or five seconds of silence between cutting off a caller and deciding where to go next. Usually when he flits from one call to another, the transition is instantaneous. Well, maybe to a scientist there would be some measurable gap in time, a nanosecond or something, but to a layman, the transition would appear seamless. But when he’s intervened, when he’s taken a unilateral decision to terminate a call, Larry likes to take a few moments to reflect on what he’s done, be sure in his own mind that it was the right decision. After all, he may be called upon to justify his actions. He calls these his moments of quiet. You’d be surprised at how few such moments there are in the day, all of which tells you he’s good at his job.
This morning he cut a woman off for no reason at all. Then he took thirty seconds before moving on to another call. For the rest of the day he was expecting someone to point it out, to ask for an explanation, but nobody did. Not his boss, not anyone. Which means he got away with it.
When he gets home from work, after they’ve eaten, Judith wants to talk. It doesn’t seem to matter what about and Larry understands that’s because being alone with a child for twelve hours a day, she looks forward to adult conversation. It’s no good telling her that he’s listened in on four hundred or so adult conversations that day and that not one of them was in the least bit interesting. Irony doesn’t cut it with Judith. Besides, he knows what she’d say. She’d say, “It’s all right for you, you get to interact with other people.” As if what he does is interact. Not by any stretch of the imagination does Larry think that listening to conversations between people who are unaware of his presence can be seen as interacting. The closest he gets is when he cuts them off. Still, he usually makes the effort, figuring that one more conversation won’t make a great deal of difference in the scheme of things. Besides, he doesn’t have to say much, the level of his participation being dictated by how much or how little she has to tell him. It’s not that he doesn’t have an interest. He loves Judith and he wishes there was some way to make her believe this without having to say it all the time. It matters to him that Holly’s started teething, or that she sleeps through the night. He doesn’t want to miss out on these important milestones. It’s just that he needs time to himself. Not because he’s solitary by nature, but because after listening to all those calls, he looks forward to some quiet time, a time when he can just switch off and listen to nothing but silence.
But tonight his heart isn’t in it and when Judith tells him that Holly took her first unassisted step today, he pretends he hasn’t heard.
She throws a cushion at him, playfully. “Hey,” she says. “Are you listening?”
Larry says nothing. The news is on the TV but the sound is turned right down.
“I said Holly walked on her own today.”
He tunes into the quiet between her words.
“Larry,” she says, and he recognises that note of irritation in her voice. “Did you hear a word I said?”
He’s trying not to, but he doesn’t tell her that. It would only encourage her and tonight, more than anything else, he needs the balm of silence.
“What’s the matter with you?” she persists. “Why are you being like this?”
He wants to close his eyes but he’s aware that would be the wrong thing to do. It would exacerbate the situation. Instead he focuses on the reflected light bulb on the TV screen, how it floats inside the head of the woman reading the news. Every time she speaks, it ‘s like she’s having a bright idea.
“For God’s sake talk to me,” Judith says. He wishes he could but it’s just not possible, not right now. How can he make her see that it doesn’t matter a damn what she’s saying, or what the newsreader says about poverty or the Middle East or that disaster in some place he’s never been. He doesn’t need to hear their words to know what they’re saying. Their lips are moving but the sounds they make are the same as always.
Finally, Judith leaves Larry alone in front of the silent TV. One by one he notes all the household sounds and filters them out of his consciousness. The hum of the fridge, the rattling of pipes, the ticking of a clock, the tired creaks and groans of the walls. As each sound disappears he sinks a little deeper into the silence, where everything falls into place. He understands why people try so hard to keep the quiet at bay, why they need to make sense of everything that registers on the aural plane. It’s because they’re afraid of silence, because they see it as a second cousin to darkness, or maybe something closer.
Sometimes they speak to Larry as he drives home along the M4 towards Swansea. The hi-fi is switched off and he won’t even be thinking about music. All he’ll hear is the engine and the roar of overtaking vehicles, noises he can tolerate well enough. They come from outside, like the stink of sulphur pouring into the sky out of Port Talbot Steelworks. It wouldn’t make sense to get pissed off about them. But then what happens is, it will start raining and he’ll try to ignore it for a while, try to see through the blur but eventually it’ll get so bad he won’t be able to see a damn thing and he’ll have to turn them on. Then it’s, you know, that sound, swish, swish, and the drumming of the rain on the roof, and soon it just becomes too much and he finds himself reaching for the dial. He turns the music up loud to drown out those other noises. But Larry’s not fooled - he knows it’s a front, a fifth column of sound, behind which lurks the residue of the day’s talking, and sometimes the whisper of conversations still to come. It wouldn’t matter so much if they had something new to say but it’s always the same. They’re saying we are here, we are alive, we want you to know that. As if this is something he might have missed.
Larry is woken by Judith’s screams. No - that’s not strictly true. He’s been awake a while, thinking about last night. He’d been immersed in a world of total silence in which his other senses were predominant. He was able to catch the scent of the city in all its subtle gradations; he saw tachyons penetrate the ceiling and pass through his body; he felt the cool slipstream of the turning world brush against his skin; even his thoughts were soundless, registering only as impulses somewhere in his brain. Until Holly started crying. He’d lain in the ruins of stillness, listening to sound bleed from her, understanding finally what it was she mourned, what she would so rarely retrieve. And as he’d listened, his heart breaking from the sound of her hurt, he told himself he would not let it happen, he would not let the world steal her silence.
And now it’s Judith who feels compelled to announce her pain to the world. At first he doesn’t know how to react. He’s never heard her scream before, which may be why he’s confused, why he’s still laying in bed instead of rushing to see what the matter is. But even as he thinks this he moves into action. He jumps up and runs naked across the hall to where the sounds are coming from, to Holly’s room. And there’s Judith holding Holly in her arms and she’s screaming and there are tears streaming down her face and though she’s looking right at him, Larry believes she doesn’t see him at all. That’s when he notices how quiet Holly is, how quiet and still and pale. And he feels something horrible, a sharp, cold pain stabbing at his heart, and he tries to speak but the words get all jumbled up with fear and come out like the howl of a beaten dog, but it’s a sound that says all there is to say.
His daughter is dead.
Later, an ambulance comes to take her body away, something Larry find strange because he associates ambulances with rescue, salvation and repair. But Holly is beyond all that. He finds it strange that he’s using the word ‘body’ instead of Holly or daughter or child. The police are very kind and considerate - they ask him hardly any questions and none at all of Judith.
The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which, Larry discovers, used to be called ‘cot death’. Most such fatalities occurred between the ages of two and six months, whereas Holly was nearing her first birthday. Death was probably due, the coroner said, to a number of contributory factors, including the failure of the child to breathe because of reduced brain activity during sleep. Her death was more than likely peaceful, he said, as if that would make it easier for Larry and Judith to bear.
But Larry thinks he was wrong. Holly didn’t suffer from reduced brain activity during sleep - on the contrary, she was far too active. How else to explain her sleeping sounds? The sounds that kept him awake so many nights? It does no good but he can’t help thinking that he should have acted sooner to help her discover the quiet she craved. In truth he had so little of his own to give. Now she’s gone and her absence is a sore that corrodes his heart. Despite his pain, Larry has to be strong for Judith’s sake. If they’re to get through this crisis, then he must give her all the support she needs. This is hard but not impossible - he loves his wife, loves her so much that the thought of being without her causes him anguish.
In the first months after Holly’s death, Judith retreats into herself. She becomes quieter, more contemplative and Larry takes this as a good sign. Some evenings they sit together over a Chinese takeaway and eat without talking. He watches her as she eats, looking for signs that might indicate she’s turned a corner. He finds himself hoping that this apparent numbness, this absence of feeling, is something more - a genuine silence.
One evening he asks her if she’d like to have another child. When she looks at him he sees the conflicting emotions in her eyes. For a moment he wonders if this was the wrong thing to say, then she puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “It’s not that simple, Larry.”
She’s right in this observation, he believes, but when she tells him it’s not just a matter of getting another child from the baby factory because the first one, the one that didn’t work, was still under guarantee, he’s not sure she really comprehends. It’s not that Holly didn’t work, but that she worked too well. He doesn’t say this; instead he says, “I’m not saying we should have another child to replace Holly - no one can take her place. But if she were still alive we’d have been talking about another child anyway. All I’m suggesting is we bring it forward.”
“I ... I don’t know if I’m ready,” she says, her hand falling to her side. She begins to turn away but he reaches out and pulls her close.
“Please, Judith, I need this as much as you.”
She says nothing but there are tears in her eyes, big, fat, luminous tears that well up and roll down her cheeks. She’s crying but she makes no noise and for a moment he thinks she understands. But as he watches the tears fall, he sees himself reflected in them, his own face, huge and round and screaming, and he knows her silence is only skin deep.
Larry can tell that David isn’t going to work out. Technical assistants hardly ever lose their cool, but he’s noticed that odd inflection in David’s voice that signifies irritation. If Larry’s picking up on it, then you can bet the customer is too. Already this morning, he’s detected that tone four times in David’s conversations. Four times is the limit. You hear it more than four times in one day, you take the assistant aside and have a quiet word, try to find out what the problem is. The usual response is, they’re tired or hungover, or they have a headache. Something small. But in this job, tone and inflection are everything, and if customers sense that their problems are not fully engaging your attention, or that there’s something else you’d rather be doing, then they may cancel their subscriptions. At the very least, they’ll probably call customer complaints. And of course, as is the nature of these things, complaints come back to Larry. He can’t afford to carry people who let the team down and experience is telling him that David is one such person. In fact it’s not so much telling him as screaming it in his ear as he listens to David telling someone to shut up a second. At this precise moment, Larry should intervene, remove David from the loop and pass the customer to another assistant. But he doesn’t do that. He merely listens to David pouring scorn on the customer’s lack of technical know-how, then tunes out and takes a minute to himself.
Of course, words are not the only sounds that signify. This morning he’s heard coughing, sneezing and sighing, the tap-tapping of fingers on a keyboard, snatches of hummed melodies, the sound of someone eating or maybe just chewing the end of a pen, the strike of a flaring match and the loud inhalation of a cigarette, the countless variants of respiration, the blurring of background noises into a torrent of sounds that signify the machinery of life. It all seems banal to Larry - this compulsion to produce noise in order to remind yourself that you exist. The question people should be asking, he believes, is where does it all go?
After lunch, he emails David, asking him to drop by his workstation. He’s thinking about how to deal with him. Perhaps some kind of reprimand is in order, an official warning. Larry has to be seen to take action. But the truth is he’s warmed to David, even has a sneaking admiration for what he’s done. Which makes it all the more disappointing when he doesn’t show up and Larry discovers that he’s already quit.
Judith is upstairs, waiting for Larry to go and make a baby with her. He wants to, particularly as she’s ovulating and all, but he can’t. They tried last night and afterwards Judith was sure she’d conceived. But while she slept Larry became acutely aware of the sound of her breathing. He listened to the rise and fall of her respiration and it struck him just how much was going on inside her. Disturbed, he tried to block out the sounds. But the harder he tried, the more insistent they became. Unwittingly, he began to separate them from one another, codifying them according to frequency and duration in an attempt to reveal their meaning. He identified an occasional stutter in the otherwise smooth rhythm of her breathing, as if the inbreath had snagged on some obstacle of doubt. He catalogued stomach noises, lackadaisical groans, the almost silent hiss of a fart, the creak of her left knee, the one she broke years ago in a motorbike accident, the beating of her heart and the insistent tremor of her eyelids as she dreamed. But there was no sound from her womb. Nothing at all.
Larry watches Seinfeld on television. He used to enjoy this show. Now he watches it with the sound turned down because the characters’ actions are too loud, as if they don’t trust their tongues to say all they need to say. Their limbs flail and clack, their bodies howl in disgust and he’s listening to these gestures trying to pretend he’s forgotten about Judith, waiting upstairs. He doesn’t want to disappoint her. Right now she’s happy. At this precise moment she's laying there naked, or maybe she’s wearing sexy underwear, baby-making underwear, perhaps imagining his sperm has already fused with an ovum but wanting to give it another shot just in case. But this kind of happiness is transient. In a couple of weeks, when her period comes on, she’ll begin to fall apart.
He didn’t ask for these insights; there is a perfectly good reason people’s bodies are clothed in skin, and that’s to protect them from the knowledge of what goes on inside. How can he explain? How can he tell her that he hears too much, that he can hear what’s going on beneath her outer layer?
Larry’s sitting there, pondering, trying to put off the inevitable, when he hears her calling. So he goes and he does his duty and says nothing about the noises he can hear, and those he can’t, going on inside her.
Judith is talking names but Larry catches only half of what she’s saying. He’s listening to that guy over in the far corner of the restaurant, the fat man with a heart murmur who’ll probably be dead inside a month. He feels an impulse to warn him, or at least tell him to make the most of what might be his last supper. But how can he tell a perfect stranger that he hears his irregular heartbeat from the other side of the room? Particularly when he’s trying hard to concentrate on what Judith is saying.
“Elizabeth,” she says, “If it’s a girl.”
Sparkling water fizzes down the throat of that young woman at the table by the door. It doesn’t drown out the sound of her desire for the guy sitting opposite her. “Elizabeth is fine,” Larry says, his attenuated voice lost in the blizzard of noise. The woman at the next table is menstruating heavily. She’s a little self-conscious about the smell. Larry wants to lean across and tell her it’s the noise, not the smell, she should be worried about, but he assumes she wouldn’t appreciate the observation.
“Or maybe Candice?” Judith says, raising a glass of red wine to her lips. Larry flinches in anticipation and she asks him what’s wrong.
“Nothing,” he says.
“What did I just say?”
“Names, you were choosing names.”
She frowns and he hears the dry scrape of her skin creasing. Be still, he wants to tell her, be perfectly still but before he can speak she says, “What’s the matter?”
He can hear someone in the toilet, taking a piss. An elderly couple sitting at the window, stare at him and Judith, smiling and whispering behind their liver-spotted hands. They’re talking about love but Larry hears death whistling between their bones
“Larry, are you listening to me?”
He nods and watches as she licks a residue of wine from her lip. He doesn’t want to spoil things for her tonight so he acts as if the sounds she’s making are completely normal.
“Your face,” she says, quite loudly. “You look so serious.”
He forces a smile and even though he tries to keep it quiet, he’s pretty sure she must have heard it. Still, it’s not enough. She says, “What are you thinking about?”
He’s thinking, how would it be for all of us here to live, if only for a while, in the silence? He says nothing in the hope of setting an example and for a brief moment he thinks maybe they understand. But Judith shatters his illusions by saying, “I’m not getting through to you, am I?”
Even as she speaks her words become distorted, amplified beyond meaning and he wants to explain why this is happening, how it’s because of this need she has, they all have, to avoid the truth. But he keeps his mouth shut because he doesn’t want to add to the volume. Already, the walls are vibrating beneath the immensity of sound; it pulverises their senses and everyone just sits there, pretending there’s nothing going on.
Outside, the streetlamp hums orange. Nothing strange in that. Larry’s sure he’s heard it before - five years he’s lived in this house overlooking the bay, so it stands to reason. What’s different now is that he’s aware of this particular sound, that it’s impinging on his consciousness. He’s considered the possibility that he’s imagining it, but no, he really is hearing light. This isn’t normal. Normal is, no matter where you live, co-existing with noise. After a while, it gets so that unspecified, individual sounds merge into one constant thrum which blurs so far into other sensory input that people no longer register it as sound. But this illusion of quiet disturbs them, so they produce more sound to fill the void, as if this is the only way they can affirm their existence. And still there’s so much they can’t bear to hear and these sounds are filtered out into a shapeless background of unwanted information. But the more noise they shut out, the more that’s produced to replace it, in an infinite regress. Larry’s lost this ability - he can’t stop himself from hearing. It’s not just the obvious sounds like voices or television or telephones, like traffic and screaming, or the waves breaking out in the bay, but the more subtle ones, the sounds most people never hear.
Right now walls of sound closing in and Judith doesn’t even know it. How can she lay beside him and not care that each hiss of her breath, each beat of her heart is a reminder of what’s slipping away? He leans across and tells her be still, but his words make no impression. He hates this intransigence, this selfishness which allows her to deflect the truth she doesn’t want to hear. Having failed to make her see things from his point of view, he turns away and hears the radio-alarm whispering three-thirty even before he sees the LED display glowing red in the dark. He shuts his eyes not wanting to see the numbers when they change, but he hears it anyway, the sound of another minute gone. What he doesn’t want, what he’s fighting against, is counting, because with Larry counting means counting down. He already knows where that will lead.
The bed creaks as Judith turns and drapes an arm over his stomach. He draws a sharp breath, fighting panic, lifts her arm and rolls out from underneath it. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he grabs the pillow and covers his ears. He breathes softly, not hearing anything. Beginning to relax, thinking he’s found the silence, he becomes aware of a new sound. Except it’s not really new. In fact it’s all too familiar - the modulated sound of his own autonomic functions, those regulatory processes over which he has no control. Terrified by this heightened awareness of self, Larry sinks to the floor and pulls a sheet over his body to cloak himself in silence. But it’s no good because these internal processes refuse to go quietly about their work. But there’s something else more awful than hearing them, something he can’t bring himself to acknowledge.
With an effort of will, he climbs back up on to the bed, thinking perhaps Judith will know what to do. But she’s just laying there, oblivious, like she bears no responsibility, sleeping through his fear, just as she did through Holly’s crying. That’s not right, Larry feels, a mother not hearing her child’s night-time fears. Maybe Judith has infected him with her noise. Maybe it’s not enough that she has to talk to him every evening after work, that she insists on filling his head with the emptiness of her days, but even while sleeping, she deflects on to him the babble she’s afraid to hear. Every night, this constant need to remind him of her presence. As if he could ever forget. He should talk to her about it, see if she’s open to compromise. But there’s already too much noise in the room, sounds which the darkness intensifies, lending them more power than they have in the light of day.
These are some of the things Larry hears: beads of sweat rolling down his chest; the dry crack of snapped twigs, which are the spasms of his facial muscles; his stuttering breath, like the hesitant query of a nervous child; a heart beating with the irregular rhythm of a broken piston. Even when, after an hour or so, he’s managed to bring his body under control, he can still hear things it shouldn’t be possible to hear: the creeping of insects in the walls, the scuttle of a spider across the ceiling, the babble of microscopic bedbugs in the sheets. All trying to tell him a truth he already knows.
When it was just Judith Larry could hear it wasn’t so bad. On a good night it was still possible for him to withdraw into his own silence. That’s all finished now. Even here at the far side of the room there’s no getting away. The noise outside doesn’t begin to compare with the noise that fills the room, the source of which he can’t even see. He’s trying real hard to think this through, trying to find some way to drown it out. Judith’s there but she’s no help at all. In her sleep she rolls on to her side, facing towards him. There’s a smile on her face, prompted, he imagines, by some dream of contentment. He zeros in on her left eye which seems more animated than the other. He wonders if, in the same way that the light entering one eye is translated into a recognisable image by the opposite visual cortex, this movement of Judith’s left eye signals a dream taking place on the right side of her brain. It’s like she’s having two dreams at once, with one somehow amplifying the effect of the other. Maybe that’s how she does it, how she infects him. She dreams unwanted sounds into his head.
The logic of this is irrefutable, so Larry returns to the bed, grabs a pillow and presses it down on Judith’s face. At first she doesn’t react, which bothers him so he presses down harder until she begins to resist. She reaches up and clutches at his arms, scratching, but he just brings more weight to bear, forcing the pillow tightly against her, doing his best to ignore her muffled protests, not even flinching when her nails draw blood from his arms, just concentrating, riding out the frantic thrashing of her legs against the mattress, refusing to be cowed by the tremendous noise she’s making until, after a couple of minutes or so, she’s still.
He lifts the pillow and stretches out beside her, breathing hard but that’s okay because he knows something has changed. He stares up at the ceiling, at that strip of orange light and he’s pleased at the way it just sits there, not moving, not making any sound. He takes this as a good sign, a sign that he’s on the right track. His chest rises and falls and his heart pounds out a kind of triumphal message, which is understandable, but really he feels better now that things are quietening down.
When Larry wakes he feels renewed. He showers, eats some breakfast, goes to work. It turns out to be one of those days. Every second call is a major crisis, like sunspots are fucking up Earth’s atmosphere or something. You can forget ninety second averages today if things continue on like this. After the fourth consult Larry turns down the volume and listens to dead air for an hour. That’s a big improvement. It allows him to stay focused, helps him get through a difficult shift.
He leaves work a little early, intending to make up the hours tomorrow. He hurries home and makes a cold sandwich. The phone rings a couple of time but Larry ignores it, probably for Judith. He watches TV with the sound turned down, having no problems at all understanding what they’re saying - the same as last night and the night before. Come midnight he goes upstairs and there’s Judith, a little pale, waxy even, but perfectly silent. He gets into bed and finds her somewhat cold and unyielding when he tries to push her over to her own side, but that’s okay, the main thing is the quiet.
Next morning, Larry finds himself thinking about David, even missing him. Rather, he misses what David’s absence represents, which is silence. Without consulting Larry, the company has given him a replacement. This replacement is really on the ball though, you have to give her that. Not one call so far over ninety seconds. As she’s new, Larry’s been monitoring her calls and counting - ninety, eighty-nine, eighty-eight, eighty-seven, eighty ... so far he’s only got down to twenty-two. She’s cheerful and efficient and he wishes she worked someone else’s shift and left quietness in her place. It proves to be a difficult ten hours, made tolerable only by the cumulative total of seventy-three minutes of dead air he listens to, dead air created out of the exceptional number of interventions he’s forced to make.
On the way home he stops off to buy a Chinese takeaway - noodles, chicken and red peppers in a black bean sauce, some crackers. Picks up a mid-price Chardonnay at the off-license next door and lays everything out on the kitchen table. But he just picks at the food, a taste here, a nibble there. He has no real hunger to satisfy. When the phone rings he disconnects it and throws it in the bin along with the leftovers. The TV is on but, feeling jaded, he decides to have an early night.
The following day is not so good. It starts off brightly when Larry wakes at dawn and the whole world seems perfectly silent, but it’s just an illusion. Strangely enough, it’s not the sound that alerts him but the smell. It’s coming from Judith. Only after he’s noticed that does he hear the noise. That feeling of almost joy he had just a moment ago has completely vanished and now he’s confused. In fact his brain is hurting with the effort of trying to figure out his options. He makes a decision. He gets out of bed, walks across the hall to Holly’s room, lowers the rail to her empty cot and climbs in. It’s cramped, but the sheets are cool and it’s quiet, which is what Larry needs right now. It doesn’t matter if he sleeps late, he’s not working today. What’s important is to lose himself in the quiet. He’s not sure why Judith has started making noises again, but at least he’s put some distance between them. He’s got a feeling that when she realises how little impression she’s making, she’ll fall silent.
Larry manages to sleep for a while. At least he thinks it was sleep. He’s not sure because he’s finding it hard to tell the difference. He lacks the appropriate terms of reference at the moment. Despite his patience, Judith hasn’t let up for one second. The irony of it that she’s louder dead than she ever was alive. The sound of her is filling the house top to bottom, like so mething’s really bugging her. When he crosses the hall and looks through the open door at the ruin on the bed and sees the topographers of corruption crawling over her grey skin, he recognises the truth he’s been trying to avoid. He hears it in the awful drone of the flies and the soft hiss of her putrefying organs, but more than that, it’s revealed in the sounds of his own treacherous body. There it is in the dry rasp of his frown, and in the rush of air through nasal cavities, in the melody that flows through larynx and trachea and into his lungs. It’s present in the strange harmony of spleen and gall bladder, the industry of pancreas and liver, the dance of his heart. But this is just scratching the surface - beneath these are a host of more complex sounds - the surge of blood through veins, its tides dictated by something other than the moon; the whine of stretched sinews and the grind of bone against bone; the whiplash of a blinking eyelid; the snowfall of flaking skin. Sounds like life ticking away, sounds he was never meant to hear.
Larry figures that he may have to resort to something a little more drastic if he’s serious about getting things back to the way they were. He finds what he’s looking for downstairs in the living room and sits a while, reading up on the subject. His research is no more than rudimentary, twenty minutes at most, but to do this properly would take more time than he has. In the kitchen he selects the most appropriate tool, then it’s back upstairs. He sits in front of the dressing table and stares at his reflection in the mirror, feeling out of place. This is where Judith would sit to put on her make-up, disguising things she didn’t want to see. We can choose not to see, Larry thinks, but once we hear truth talking, we have no choice but to hear it out. Unless ...
He picks up the carving knife, opens up the Family Medical Advisor and takes another close look at the anatomical drawings. Understanding what he has to do, Larry takes hold of the top of his left ear and hacks it off. Blood spurts and pours down his neck, sound falling out of him. Quickly, before fear overwhelms him, he slices off the other one. Looking in the mirror, he wonders if, at the end, Judith accepted the real meaning of sound. We are made of it and each sound heard is another piece stripped from our lives. He holds the knife out till the tip of the blade touches the glass. And he looks into his eyes and sees a true silence staring out, dark mouth moving in affirmation. And of course it sounds like nothing he’s ever heard before.
by Mike O'Driscoll
Sounds Like was first published in Gathering the Bones (ed. by Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison & Jack Dann), in 2003. It was adapted and filmed by Brad Anderson for the second season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series in 2006.