A Rich Silence

An old man in a long grey overcoat and matching woollen flat cap walks into the reading room of the library, closing the door carefully behind him. He removes his hat and stands for a moment to have a look around.

The reading room is busy and most of the desks are full, but the old man spots an empty chair nearby and makes his way over with delicate steps. He places his book and hat on the table and sets about removing his coat, taking his time to fold it over the back of the chair.

His clothes are neat and smooth: a warm jumper with shirt collar protruding from the top, smart trousers, polished black shoes. His face, too, is tidy, with precise features and a slim pair of glasses perched on his nose.

The wooden chair creaks noisily when he sits down, and he winces as a sort of instinctive apology. But the reading room is filled with small sounds. People shuffle papers, turn pages, and tap away on laptops, which all creates a pleasant background noise like the patter of rain on a bedroom window. Every now and again someone adjusts their chair or drops something or coughs, and these sharper sounds echo against the high domed ceiling, which reminds the old man of being in a church. He glances around the room again, then picks up his book and opens it to the first page.

He hardly moves for hours while other people come and go. He sits with his feet tucked beneath the chair and eyes fixed on the page. The only thing disturbing this frozen exterior is his mouth as he silently narrates the book to himself.

And then, for no apparent reason, he shuts his book and gets ready to go. He unfolds and puts on his coat as he stands up, and he takes a few seconds to straighten the creased material by tugging on it firmly, followed by more careful sweeps with his palm. He squints up at the high domed ceiling. There's a pane of glass in the pinnacle of the dome which lets in a fierce shard of sunlight, too bright to look at for long.

The old man leaves through the high wooden doors and makes his way down a stone staircase. The soles of his shoes squeak on the shiny floor. He walks through a bright glass atrium and continues down another flight of stairs to the lower-ground level where the light becomes colder, more obtrusive, as sunlight gives way to artificial bulbs.

People are sitting around sprawling desks, talking quietly. A group of school children are at one of the desks, their books spread out in front of them and pieces of paper scattered about. They don't seem too concerned with their work though. They chat about this and that, laughing often and then shushing each other.

The old man returns his book to the correct shelf and pauses to watch the school children, who are now trying to suppress a collective fit of giggles. He smiles and walks on, back up to the atrium and through the glass doors that slide open automatically, out into the cold air.

***

He beats a familiar path through the city, amid pavements full of people and roads clogged with cars. As he walks the old man thinks about the book he was just reading. Certain phrases rise up in his mind and he recites them under his breath.

He thinks about all the books he has ever read, so many that they blur into a meaningless list. The odd title does stand out from this fog though. Ones that he would gladly pull off the shelf each day and read over and over. These books feel like old friends to him. It's a comfort just to know they exist.

Reading didn't interest him when he was young because he had lacked the patience to sit for longer than five minutes. But when he and his wife bought their first house together, he started picking up books that she left on the coffee table and opening them to random pages and reading a paragraph or two. Often these isolated passages seemed too obscure, or else they were overly detailed and granular, but sometimes they grabbed his attention and he flicked back to the beginning of the book and continued reading.

Soon he and his wife would spend whole evenings reading their books together, sat on the sofa with the radio on in the background. If one of them was tired or had just finished a book, the other would read passages aloud from their own. His wife read fluently, adding her own flourishes to the story like a funny accent or dramatic pauses, while he read slowly, stumbling over less-familiar words and sliding his finger across the page to keep his place.

When he began to enjoy reading he had wanted to amass every book in the world, or at least the ones he considered worth reading, and store them all on a giant bookcase. He used to imagine dark wooden shelves covering the walls of their living room, with a ladder to slide along the shelves and two luxurious armchairs for him and his wife to sink into. The books would of course be categorised by genre and arranged alphabetically by author.

The old man smiles as he thinks about this fantastical library. He is both amused and embarrassed by his former ambition, how he had wanted to accrue things and curate them in his home like a museum, but one that only he and his wife could have enjoyed.

Now he keeps only a handful of books stored neatly on a shelf. Twenty-three books to be exact. He can picture their creased spines and tattered covers, feel the texture of their pages, conjure their distinctive smells, and for many he can recite whole passages by heart. The old man sighs. All of those youthful dreams that crumbled away to nothing.

***

When he reaches the park he is still lost in thought, buried beneath the plans and events that have shaped his life. The rueful smile has become a frown. Deep wrinkles dig into his forehead and around his eyes.

The park is quiet and peaceful, the light a mellow blue. Birdsong pierces the distant roll of traffic and a gentle breeze nudges the trees from side to side.

Two teenagers stroll through the park as if they have all the time in the world. They are walking at a slightly awkward distance from each other, like two repelling magnets that are desperate to touch. The boy says something that makes the girl push his shoulder in mock offence. He sways lazily and tries to contain a smile.

The old man watches them walk past and shoves his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. He starts thinking about the kitchen of the second home he shared with his wife, the one with wooden countertops and cream cabinets so pure you almost didn't want to use them. They kept two potted plants on the windowsill, both of which lit up a brilliant green when the sun shone through their leaves.

He thinks about the garden at that house. The vegetable patch where they grew potatoes and broad beans and salad. The lawn that he kept immaculate. The bench in the shade of next door's apple tree where he and his wife would sit on slow afternoons, talking about plans for the house and garden.

Most of all he thinks about his wife kneeling in the vegetable patch or in the flower bed, her hands and knees placed delicately between the plants. She never wore gloves when gardening. Her fingers would grow filthy as she weeded and turned the soil, and she enjoyed waggling her dirty hands in his face when she came into the house, making him duck out of the way.

He would watch as she scrubbed her hands and fingernails in the kitchen sink, and when she was done he always ran his hand around the edge of the sink to wipe away the flecks of muddy water she'd left behind.

***

The old man continues through the park and walks down a series of identical residential roads, eventually reaching a nondescript high street lined with charity shops, takeaways, and a few caf├ęs. He lets himself in through his front door and climbs the stairs wearily, pausing on the landing to take deep breaths.

He hangs his coat and hat on a peg and levers his feet out of his shoes. He bends down slowly to put the shoes on a rack, swapping them for a pair of indoor sandals that he slips on gratefully. He glances through the bedroom door as he straightens up. His bed is narrow, solemnly pushed up against the wall, the duvet smoothed out, like the bed of an absent child.

He looks away and pads into the living room. A simple kitchen hugs one corner and the rest of the room is devoted to a sofa and a dining table with two wooden chairs. The walls are clean and bare, except for a patch where he scrubbed a pool of damp and painted over it with the wrong shade of white. Two shelves on the wall display his books and some framed photographs, and a chest of drawers in the corner is filled with tools and has a radio on top.

The old man surveys the room with deep satisfaction. Everything he could need has been distilled into this small space, with places to read and listen and think and small projects to tinker with.

He tries to keep his flat clean and tidy. Just this morning he emptied the kitchen drawers and scooped out the bits that had accumulated in them. He wiped the drawers with a damp cloth and then replaced the cutlery and utensils in neat rows. Tomorrow he will sweep the wooden floors, he thinks to himself.

With that decided he shuffles to the kitchen and cooks dinner: a simple meal of rice, vegetables, and beans. He eats in silence, chewing slowly, and after each mouthful he prepares the next one by sliding portions of rice and vegetables around his plate. He tries to concentrate on the flavours and textures of the food, but he can't help looking at the empty chair across the table.

The washing up he does straight away, wiping down the dining table and kitchen surfaces as he goes, and then he stands by the draining board and idly runs wet crockery through a tea towel. He pauses at one point to switch on the radio to break the heavy silence.

The early evening sun shines through the window at the end of the room, hanging a square of orange light on the wall. The old man considers this spectacle, and then his gaze comes to rest on the potted plant placed carefully on the windowsill. He sniffs and runs the tea towel round the rim of a glass over and over.

He takes no notice when the song on the radio fades out, but the first notes of the next song elicit a sharp intake of breath from him. His grip on the tea towel and glass slacken, and the wrinkles around his eyes soften in recollection.

On a mild evening he strolled along the wet city pavements with his wife, in no particular direction and for no particular purpose. They walked with their arms linked tightly, their voices in quiet harmony, and when they passed through a narrow alleyway their footsteps echoed together against the brick walls.

The rain started again. A fine drizzle that slowly soaked their coats and hair. It grew heavier so they ducked into a glowing red bar on a dank street. They ordered two beers and sat at a small table by the window. A mournful jazz record played on the sound system and the two of them listened to the music in silence, entertaining idle thoughts and gazing around the room. It was a comfortable silence - a rich silence - for there was nothing they needed to say.

The old man closes his eyes and lets the memory of that evening fill his head. He can remember the flecks of rain on the clouded windows and people walking past with their heads bowed. The hushed conversation coming from nearby tables, interspersed with floating laughter. A man sipping his oily drink at the bar and smoking a cigarette. The barman staring across the room at nothing. The air thick. And his wife sitting opposite him, looking sleepy and content, rotating her beer glass in her long fingers.

These details flow back to the old man with the notes of the music and he watches them drift across his mind, so vivid he feels as if he could grasp them in his hands.

When the song finally fades out, he walks over to the radio to switch it off and looks up at the darkening living room window. Beyond his reflection, and across the deep void of the high street, he can see a row of golden squares which display comfortable scenes from the flats opposite: a couple cooking dinner, a family watching television, someone sitting at a desk on their computer, a cat perched on the windowsill with its eyes closed and feet tucked neatly beneath its body.

The old man watches the cat for a long time. He has nothing else to do this evening. His only task is to wait for the dawn and the never-ending diversions it will reliably bring.