This is a story inspired by living in Madrid, a busy city, where I thankfully lived right beside the Park of Retiro to escape the concrete.
Hoovers, washing machines, televisions, radios, telephones, PC modems, dishwashers, cats, dogs, old-fashioned footsteps and fights, banal conversations, printers, food mixers, doors, cars, trucks, pneumatic drills, hydraulic lifts……
They surround me. My body is constantly bombarded by their sound waves, invaded by the vibrations of noise. Never is there a lull in the cacophony. Silence is almost a forgotten commodity. And it was once so common; free, like the air we breath – once fresher than now, it is also true – taken for granted. Like the water in the tap, a natural right – now no longer free – we ignored it. If it was there, we filled it with whistling.
When I was young, before I came to the city, the nights were silent. The wolves had long since been killed in that part of the country. Even owls were few and far between, and the foxes trod quietly. The sheep had no reason to bleat in the darkness. One could only hear the wind and imagine the sound of the stars.
All that is far away now, lost in the mist of middle-age and constant noise.
This apartment block isn’t downmarket, but it could be a flat in Soviet Moscow, for all the intimacy it gives – a flat in Moscow now, for that matter.
I have never seen my neighbours, but I recognise them all by the sound of their footsteps. The lady next door, who paces the floor while discussing deep things on her mobile phone at three a.m., screaming at the wailing cat when it misses the kitty-litter and pisses on the parquet. Her son, who stomps from room to room, putting a different rap record on in each one while watching television at the same time, only turning off when he’s turning on his small, patter-feet girlfriend to shrieking heights of ecstasy in his mother’s absence.
The people upstairs have twins. I think. In my imagination, they are two boys with army boots, who do pretend military parades on Saturday mornings and after school. But I’ve only come to this conclusion because I can’t see how a horse could have fitted in the lift.
Across the patio, the people work all day, but they leave their little angels in the hands of a handsome Peruvian woman, who uses the washing machine as if it were a source of entertainment.
There’s an office two flights down, where the boss alternatively shouts at the secretary, gets her to brew coffee and gruntingly humps her on the desk, dropping books, paperclips and pens as she pants, before logging onto the internet.
When the yard at the bottom isn’t occupied by a pointer bitch which howls when it isn’t whining, it’s the gym of a skipping, snorting boxer, thumping a padded bag.
I play baroque music to blot it all out, put on Bach’s cello concerto to drown out 2-Pac and his fellow spectral rapping friends, hoping the sound waves are repelling the others’ noise.
And every morning, after waking up to the sound of others showering, I stroll down to the park, past the raucous road works, through the traffic trying to squeeze into tiny streets they shouldn’t even think of, past the idiots in their all-terrain Mercedes honking to intimidate the Fiat driver through a red light so they can get to the office before eight and back to the suburbs before seven, avoiding the evening rush hour. Past the bleeping street-cleaning machines sweeping up leaves and motorbikes hoovering up dog shite, I walk in under the pines and maples, beeches and chestnuts, to the very centre, where a hollow dips away from the ornamental boating pond and hardly anyone goes – only a few dog-walkers and those wanting to read in peace – before the school kids arrive for their exercise and the pensioners go to play chess and pick up whatever nuts and mushrooms they can glean from beneath the fallen leaves. I sit on a bench where the traffic cannot penetrate, amid the trees which stretch out away as if they go on forever, or at least a few miles, like the times when a child I went walking in the forest with my father, waiting for the blackbirds to settle, the magpies to go quiet, and soak up what abides – the silence. Absolute absence of any discernable noise. Nothing to offend the ears, to drum into my tympanums and invade my brain. Complete peace. And I almost sink into it, like some eider down quilt that keeps me warm in winter winds, closing my eyes and allowing myself to drift in it like one of those stray feathers, falling into tranquillity and lifting up, buffeted blissfully, until a thrush whistles threats at my intrusion in her territory, and I open my eyes again, taking in the trees and the obstreperous hen, till it’s time to return to work and the tumultuous trials of city life.
Then, last night, I woke up in the middle of the night. It was 3.17, according to my luminous alarm clock. I lay awake for some seconds, wondering what had awoken my, before I realised – it was silence.
There was no snoring from the man downstairs. He might have had his nose taped. His children had long since had their bedtime story, his wife her nightly nag.
The cat next door must have leapt from the balcony that afternoon, the boy gone to his girlfriend’s and for once there was nobody phoning his mother inquiring what to do about the dinner party the following Friday.
The dog downstairs had obviously been shot. It’s boxer master was making the most of the darkness, dreaming of victorious knockouts before his dawn raw egg and five-mile run around the park.
The twins were comatose, worn out like the soles of their much-marched boots.
Maybe the Peruvian was visiting home, or the machine had merely just stopped its cycle, the spinning winding down to a low hum that eventually died too.
The secretary was at home with her husband, who phones her at work, dreaming of desks and wishing she could swap one for a bed, or the boss for the lump lying beside her. The manager was also away from his office, off wherever he went to; a happy home life or cocktail lounges.
And as I lay there, the quietness crept in upon my chest, clutched at my heart and seemed to hurt. It had been so long since the silent nights of my childhood, that I couldn’t cope now here in the busy city, wondering why nobody had died or tried to steal a car, causing the ambulance and police sirens to scream along the street outside; if there wasn’t someone somewhere near driving around, off to the airport, or an insomniac in the building about to get out of bed and step on the floorboards. Surely any second I’d hear a sound, I said to myself, and decided that if I didn’t, I should really switch on the radio – just nice and low, a viola sonata or solo violin to vibrate within and give enough peace to let me sleep.