Silence is not always passive. Silence can be active, a choice, sometimes the only choice – but still a choice.
It can be easier not to answer the “Are you okay?”s, the “What’s wrong?”s, the “What are you thinking?”s. Not answering, or non-committal answers. A nod. A shrug. A reassurance.
– Nothing. It’s nothing.
Polite inquiries turned away. Ensuring there was distance. Face on. The clown. The student. The lover. The husband. The colleague. The teacher. Whichever mask fitted. It was never nothing though.
Odd things trigger. Normal things. Banal. It’s the normality that makes it hard.
A Christmas tree decorated with baubles. You’re transported. Back there. In the old sandstone house. Grey outside. The air heavy. The street had been taped off. To get in to the street you’d had to talk to someone in uniform, make sure you were family. You walked into the square, where the park was, where you played. But you don’t remember seeing the roundabout, or the swings. No. Instead, rows and rows of luggage. In the park where we used to play. Saturdays. Summer holidays. In the park, luggage. Belongings. Personal effects. It was in neat lines. All ordered. From the gardens, from the house in the corner that had been demolished. You’d walked past. Noticing. Not noticing. Trying not to stare. Trying not to notice.
We got in the house. Not the normal way. We had to avoid the back. We usually went in the back door. It was always open. The front door was for special. The front door was for the insurance man, for formalities. We only went in the front door once.
And when we got in the living room there was the tree. Still up. A gesture. The fairy that usually sat on top, the doll, there every year, every Christmas when we visited, it had gone. The fairy had gone. Later, I learned my uncle had torn it off, after he’d been out the day before, after he’d seen the tree at the bottom of the garden, the tree behind the shed, the tree they pictured in Time magazine. That tree. But in the living room, balanced on the furniture in front of the window, a Christmas tree, decorated, obscuring the view, but behind it on either side, behind it you could see the park, the park that was no longer a park – the park that was a storage area, catalogued, protected. And while you look at the tree more and more is added. Things are brought out from what had been the house in the corner, brought out and added in line.
Christmas trees. That sight of Christmas trees with baubles, with lights, and you’re there. Back there.
Of course there’s not just that. Last week as you walked to the train station the air was heavy, the sky grey. You’re wearing a hat, a scarf part wrapped round your neck, keeping you warm. The old farmhouse at the end of the street had its fire on. And the stench of smoke hung close to the ground, filling each hollow, each dip in the road.
You could smell the air. Long after, it lingered. Fuel. Oil. Smoke. The remnants of those fires that rained on the town.
People only rarely talk about the smell. When the stories are told again, the anniversary tributes, there’s mention of the crater, the rows of luggage, the cockpit, the ice rink forming a temporary mortuary. But rarely the smell. Even going up two days later it was the smell you noticed. It was the first thing your mum mentioned when she got back that night, when the medical staff were turned back because no one was needed, because no one was injured, because no one had survived the crash.
The stench combed your nostrils. You can still smell it now. And it carries with it what you saw.
The kitchen curtains were shut. This was not normal. They were closed. And the back door was closed. And it was dark in the kitchen, that grey sky outside casting little light.
You’re aware of the goings in and out at the corner. The vans that pulled up, and left. Silent. Another taken into the back with appropriate reverence. Van after van. A seemingly endless cycle of vans.
You twitch at the curtains to see, open the door. Smell the smoke. Smell the fuel. Combing your nostrils. Hitting the back of your throat.
And you see the tree at the bottom of the garden, catch sight of the hillside behind the houses at the back of your granny’s. You catch sight of marker after marker on the hill. Sheet after sheet.
In the upper window of the house to the rear you see the seat. In the bedroom window, still there. A seat. And you see the arm. Lolling to the side.
Your stomach knots. The smell combs your nostrils.
Your stomach still knots. The bile rises. You still feel nauseous.
It never leaves you. It’s never completely out of mind.
And some days it’s harder than others.