Writing: ‘I Heard a Silence Infinite’

There is a man and he is alone – but he isn’t lonely. That’s what he tells those who take the time to ask, although the words don’t flow as easily as they once did. But he is healthy, he keeps busy and he has his youth, or what’s left of it. And he still believes the words as he mouths them with chapped lips.

That changes with the setting of the sun. A silence ebbs and flows along the coast each night – one that makes its presence known rather than hiding out of sight, one carried by howling winds and the lapping of waves against seafront stone. It is a silence that stings eyes and prickles skin, a silence that prefaces nightmares and portends monsters. A dark, tide-borne unknown. The man hears it as he leaves the warmth of his home, guided by the sea’s salt-laced siren song.

His days have become interchangeable these ten long years. But tonight will be different. Tonight is important, tonight will set things right.

Tonight he will finally say goodbye.

Out from the shelter of chocolate box houses and narrow lanes, the wind is free to howl and twirl, coating the village with a fine layer of salty spray. Strings of flickering lantern lights mark the path the man must take – out to the harbour, out to the edge.

His route slopes gently downwards – an easy walk were it not for his damned knees, their numb ache a constant reminder of time washed away.

When did he get so old?

He pauses for breath, easing himself down onto a bench overlooking the harbour. He can see boats of all shapes and sizes, can hear rigging chink and bows creak as they bob upon the water. Further out, he sees the harbour mouth, huge oak baulks shut tight against the gathering storm – a rare sight on all but nights like these. Waves break over the barrier like a pulse, the heartbeat of the ocean hinting at the vast creature kept at bay outside.

A knock at the door, the man thinks, and who here to answer it but him? He pushes himself up and onward.

A short, steep incline marks his arrival at the harbour walls. This place would be full of tourists during the day, rows of cars parked precariously alongside the great drop into the harbour.

Empty in the dead of night, of course.

He walks along the walls towards the harbour mouth, wind stinging his face. His well-worn mackintosh is no use – not against such weather, such odds – but still he pushes on, pulling his hood strings tighter.

The end of the walkway is devoid of life. Even the gulls have given up for the evening – and who can blame them? It’s too wet, too windy, too grey. It always is here, the man thinks, out on the edge of the world.

He can’t recall what they ever saw in this place.

He pulls himself up atop the harbour wall, slipping a little on the slimy stone but managing to find his balance. He looks out to sea – on a clear day, he might see ships, rocky islets or even the outline of towns further along the coast, but darkness is absolute and the weather is worsening, so he sees nothing beyond the churning sea and skies.

Endless, he thinks, mesmerised by the swirling swell.

He peers down at the waves that hammer the walls far below. They come and come, crashing, crushing, consuming. Amazing that this battered place has withstood the onslaught for so long, he thinks, sure that it won’t forever.

Distant bells call out to him on the wind – midnight. The man sighs; he knows it’s time. He takes a deep breath. Steps closer to the edge. Tastes salt on his lips. Closes his eyes. And then…

A different silence surrounds him. Waves still crash against stone and the wind still whispers its secrets, but the man feels battered and bruised by the storm no more.

Something has changed.

“Are you lost?”

The man opens his eyes. A girl sits beside him, looking out into the great nothing of the ocean.

“Um, hullo?” the man says. Had she been sat there all this time?

He’s not sure what to say next. It’s been a long time since he spoke to a girl of…how old is she? He’s never been any good at placing ages. “Should you be…out here on your own? Weather like this is dangerous.”

“It’s a rough night, isn’t it?” the girl says.

“Yes…although…well, it does seem to be calming down a bit now, actually…” Moonlight filters through gaps in the cloud, washed out luminescence coating the harbour. “Still, it’s not safe you being up on the walls; you could slip, get pulled into the waves.” A crash against the harbour, as if on cue. “Imagine being caught out in that.”

“You’re right, perhaps it’s not safe,” the girl says, on her feet now. Her crimson hair floats upwards, streaming behind her in the wind.

As though she’s drowning, the man thinks.

“But then, I’m not on my own, am I? You’re here with me. And you’ll keep me safe, won’t you?”

You’ll keep me safe. The man’s throat tightens.

“Of course,” he says, the words like razors. “Are you from the town? Or are you staying here on holiday? I can walk you home if you like, or call someone, although it’s late and the reception here is awful.”

“Middle of nowhere, isn’t it?” the girl says. She turns to look up at the village, sprawled out on the hillside behind them. “This place is dying. Can’t you feel it?”

A little morbid, the man thinks. But even through the sheets of rain that blanket the village, he can spot the ‘for sale’ signs, the empty shops and empty streets. He remembers how it felt when they first came here – all youthful hope and promise.

He must be the youngest person living here, now.

“Oh, the village is fine. It’s…” The man pauses for a moment, reaches for the right words. “It’s quaint. Sleepy. Just a nice little place, really.”

“It’s a ghost town,” the girl says.

The man wants to argue, to stick up for his adopted home. But he looks around and knows that she’s right. This is a place to end things, he thinks, not a place for life and the living. 

He stares back out to the sea, at the waves slamming against the village. How many skulls dashed against those walls? How many struggling arms pulled beneath?

How many lives stolen away?

“Don’t worry about me,” the girl says, “I won’t get in your way.”

The man’s throat is dry and stinging. “I’m…it’s okay, I’m just out for a little walk. I like being out late at night; helps clear out the cobwebs, that’s what my old man used to say.” He flashes a toothy grin at the girl, doing his best to look sincere.

“If you say so,” the girl says. She turns back to the sea. Something in the movement causes his breath to catch; an elegant pirouette, he thinks, like a ballet dancer. Familiar, somehow. Graceful, yes, but so very dangerous this close to the drop.

Driftwood splinters upon the walls.

The man isn’t sure what to do. He can’t just leave her here alone, can he? “What are you doing out here at this time of night, anyway?” he asks, trying his best to sound authoritative.

The girl looks over her shoulder at him. Despite the low light, the man can see her eyes are pools of the deepest, darkest blue. “Tell me why you’re here and I’ll tell you why I am.”

Negotiating with a child, is this what his life has come to? He draws in a deep breath. “I already told you, I like walking at night; it’s, I don’t know, relaxing, I suppose. There’s nothing else to it.” He wishes the lie didn’t make him feel so terrible, but it does.

“That’s not what I asked,” the girl says. Her voice is little more than a whisper but it slices through the storm like a knife – impossibly clear, impossibly close. “I asked you why you’re here. This isn’t your home, is it? Not really.”

“How do you…” the man says, shivering. But then it hits him: his accent. He’s never forgiven his father for endowing him with a slight cockney twang, even if it has softened over the years. “This is…well, it’s my home now. I’ve lived here almost a decade; ten years tomorrow, as it happens. I lived in London before.”

“A long way to move out from such a big city. Wasn’t there somewhere else you could have moved?” The girl’s voice is everywhere. “A compromise?”

There was: Bristol. A middle ground, a halfway house, a place they could both be happy. A place to lay down roots, to sow seeds. To raise a family. Close enough for city breaks and Cornish holidays alike. It seemed the perfect plan.

It wasn’t.

“And now you are alone,” the girl says, giving him no chance to respond.

Alone. How did he reach this point? There were two of them, then three. But now he’s just one, alone but not lonely.

Does anyone believe him when he says that?

“Waiting here, all this time. You are waiting, aren’t you?”

He has been waiting, the man thinks. And for such a long time. He’d seen it as a temporary thing at first – an extended break, a way to get his mind off everything. And everyone agreed; his friends, his family, his boss. Of course you should take a break, they said, take as long as you need. But people always say that at first, don’t they? Take as long as you need. It wasn’t long until he lost his job, was it? It wasn’t long until the calls of sympathy from his friends became shorter and less frequent, their voices turning blunt and disinterested.

They didn’t understand, though. He had to be out here, had to be alone.

Had to be close to her.

“I’m not waiting, it’s just… I need to…”

“You need to let her go,” the girl says.

The waves are a barrage now, cannon fire striking against the broken bow of the village.

“You don’t understand,” he says, voice cracking and creaking, straining against the deafening silence, “she’s…”

She’s gone.”

The man tries to look at the girl, but all he can see is her outline amidst the tempest. She could be any little girl now, playing on the harbour front, looking back at her parents, smiling, waving, laughing.

Falling.

He feels a small hand grab on to his. So, so small. She squeezes three times in quick succession. His breathing catches.

So, so familiar.

“You should go home,” the girl says. “Wait out the storm. You’ll feel much better tomorrow.” Her voice and the sea are one and the same now, soothing and silent and dark and everywhere. “It’ll pass soon.”

The man exhales hard. His lungs ache and his chest shudders. “But it’s all so…” He grasps for what to say, the right words. He has longed for this, longed for an ending. For silence, final and beautiful. But still it taunts him, edging closer and closer then pulled away at the last, torn from him by the tide, ripped from his arms and pulled down, down, down. “…relentless. It’s all so relentless. Will it ever stop?”

The girl offers no answer. And perhaps there isn’t one, the man thinks, rubbing his eyes. The sea sprawls out ahead, the dark unknown buried deep beneath it still haunting him. He looks for the girl again, wishes she would say something to ease his pain, wishes she would say anything at all.

But she is gone. The man stands motionless in the rain, numbed by the noise of the sea below that has come rushing back to him, rolling and diving to break against the weathered walls. He can still feel her hand in his – soft and sea-worn, there and gone.

But it doesn’t matter. Because the man already knows her tale.

He had known it all along.


By TomAntonyDavies

Writing sort. Manchester, England.

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