Straining to occupy every inch of space silence is sinking into its new home.
It’s not the kind of serenity that comes with contentment. Rather, the audacious quietude that creeps in undetected like a thief through the back door entrenches its presence upstairs and downstairs and no matter how hard you punch, kick or cry, it refuses to leave. In the sanctum within, where once the wheels and cogs of the mind screamed in production: humming, whizzing, and rushing, and then in moments of reflection: whispering, droning, and even bumbling; now there is naught.
I surface from the dream again. It flickers before my eyes, coaxing me with the delightful chance to rewrite it all. Tonight, like every night, I’ve plummeted from the seventh heaven. I cradle my shattered reality: him.
I look across the room we share with my mother. He looks like the splayed remnants of a truck collision. He sleeps with the abandon of a pensioner in an armchair nodding off in mid-conversation.
Auburn light of an August dawn carries upstairs the hum of my mother’s voice. She is awake because of the time difference. She is on the phone. For once they are not arguing with each other, for once not tearing out rags from their respective dignity-cloths. His grating snores render her speech incomprehensible- not that I am paying attention. I want to scream the house down, wake him up from his tranquil sleep, and bellow at her. But I say nothing.
You see, before I had come of age, my mother had busied herself with the preparations of my eventual wedding.
I was an only child (she would constantly remind me) and therefore I was her only chance at shedding the bittersweet tears when wishing farewell to a newly-wed daughter. It was supposed to mark an important phase in our lives, one where I would leave her forever and start afresh with a new family, new home, and then have children of my own. Didn’t I want my mother to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event? Didn’t I want my mother to see all her plans materialize for my big day? Didn’t I want the same for myself when I became a mother?
Such was her obsession with the matter that my first childhood memory was of being pushed and shoved amidst a crowd in someone’s bedroom. Sweltering July heat and the ruffled polyester dress I wore had me gasping for air. I spied the bride through the brocade curtain. I remember the look on her face. It was the same look you see at funerals.
I tugged my mother’s hand.
‘Why isn’t she happy mama?
‘Oh, nonsense! She couldn’t be happier. Can’t you see?’ She swatted me away.
I learned early in life to abandon the shame I felt flushing my cheeks that day, to get used to being swatted away like an insignificant insect, to smile when gifts of gold were showcased, to nod my head and agree that yes – that shade of red was especially lovely for a bridal dress. Thinking it was a harmless and natural parental inclination, I gave in to her Mrs. Bennet-like ways. Dressed modestly and served pink Kashmiri tea to prospective suitors, I joined in with the chit chat and waited patiently to find out if I was ‘The One’.
Until suddenly, I relinquished all control. I found myself becoming the wife of a complete stranger. And to my mother’s dismay, she had absolutely nothing to do with it.
I was working at a department store. Between work, studying, and searching for a prospective spouse, I spent my free time in the sanctuary of my home. I rarely left the house; unwanted attention spooked me. I never became immune to the stares of strangers. Dragging along the questions in their eyes as they latched on to my clothes, I began drowning in thoughts that weren’t mine, their opinions clung to my skin.
When I confided in my mother the unease I felt in public, she tutted: ‘This is a symptom of being unmarried, there is no greater security than a husband’. It was then, whilst reflecting on the validity of her statement, absent-mindedly purchasing a few necessities at the shopping centre, did I sense I was being watched.
Between shopping and ‘accidental’ glances, I noticed he was of average height and wore a camel-coloured jacket with faded jeans. Not too fair nor too tanned, his forehead was wide and although his hair seemed to be fine in texture and wasn’t thick and lustrous like it ought to be in youth, it covered his head so as not to reveal any signs of early baldness. On one cheek was a permanent dimple which remained equally intense, whether he smiled or not. He was neither good looking nor bad looking, not exceptionally handsome nor repulsive. He appeared to be perfectly ordinary, but his eyes unnerved me. They flittered from one thing to the next yet whenever they met mine, he held my gaze for infinity: compressing my ability to think.
Being the type to only venture out for necessity, I wasted little time in accumulating a number of shopping bags. In the women’s clothing aisle, he had grown bold enough to stop observing me from afar and now stood about five feet away from me. He was so still – except for those eyes – anyone could have easily mistaken him for a mannequin, there but not really. With a growing number of items flung on to my arm, I lost grip of my handbag.
The cogs in my mind spun around with ferocity. The figure that had previously been a mere statue sprang into action as if an invisible force compelled him! He leapt forward and made a grab for my bag! He wanted to steal it! An astonished, raspy wail clambered upwards as I attempted to shout ‘Thief!’ But it died away as quickly as it formed; he had not moved. He stood, once again, perfectly still. The handbag that had been on my arm but a minute ago was in his hands, seeing it betray me thus made the discussion of its ownership awkward. Sensing my uncertainty, he smiled.
‘You no worry.’ He reassured me. ‘You shop. I take care of purse.’
‘Thank you but there’s no need….really. May I please have my bag?’
‘No, no- you no worry.’ He said again. The dimple was all I could concentrate on: its mesmerizing circumference spun round and round, a symmetric symbol of what I know not – a dizzying merry-go-round
Despite all my protests, the handbag remained indefinitely with its new guardian. Silence met my exhaustive speech in which I exerted every effort to explain how I really needed my bag. Then I heard it like the swish of a slap across the face: ‘You no worry. I protect my wife.’
A shrill laugh erupted somewhere, generating concerned looks from other customers. I realized it was mine. Obviously I was hearing things – my mother’s preoccupation with my marriage was starting to haunt me. I tried again.
‘Look, I really need my bag. If you could just return it that would be ever so helpful…’
‘You no worry.’
‘But I can’t shop without my purse!’
‘You no worry. You my wife.’
There it was again. Was I supposed to laugh or feel outraged, worry or feel flattered? You no worry? How could I not worry? This man, who had clearly escaped from a psychiatric ward, was telling me to ‘no worry’ about the theft he had committed because I was his wife!
Yet, something about the way he said it told me he wasn’t dangerous. That perhaps if I played along for long enough he would grow bored.
My heart pumped adrenaline and the clamour in my head drowned out his speech. We walked in circles around the shopping centre, round and round until ingenuity struck in the form of flashing neon signs for the public toilets. I proceeded to walk straight towards them, my mind projected scenes from American movies where characters made swift escapes out of conveniently placed restroom windows. The perfect way out! I would ask for my handbag before entering and he would understand. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?
It was only when I turned around to put my plan into action that I saw he was mid-stride, and like a shadow with no free will of its own, heading into the women’s toilets with me. Seeing him halt within millimetres of myself, seeing my own wide-eyed face reflected in the dark pools that were his eyes, both thrilled and terrified me in a way I cannot explain, even to this day.
‘Er…’ I stuttered. ‘You can’t come in. Women only.’ I pointed to the little silhouette of the stick-woman with a skirt.
‘You no worry,’ he said again, making no effort to walk away.
‘No. You are not allowed here. Please, go away’ I enunciated, raising my voice as if doing so would somehow compensate for the way language was failing me.
My head pounded with the force of a hundred voices thumping against my skull, hammers of rage stamped on every vein. Why didn’t he understand? I was on the verge of screaming when, hearing the commotion, a cleaner came to my aid.
The matter was resolved efficiently and before I knew it, the handbag was in my possession. Clutching it, I ran through the doors.
Once, when I was 13 and frequently visited the local library, a young man began following me. Then he made the mistake of saying hello. I forgot about my books and ran home. Barefoot. In the middle of a summer afternoon. On a busy road. I didn’t stop and think about how there was no need for such erratic behaviour on my part. But I didn’t know what to do! Stories my mother had told me whizzed around in my head and all I could think of was being abducted, raped or killed. Afterwards, it felt like an overreaction but at the time it felt so right.
I laugh at the similar situation I am in now. Locating my lipstick, I begin to apply it. I see it through the reflection in the mirror, I see my own face drop as the realisation hits me. Public toilets in shopping centres don’t have conveniently placed windows.
I stare at the porcelain sink in front of me- the circular bowl, the symmetrical taps. Round and round.
I am mustering the strength to walk back. You are no longer 13 so get a grip. Speak your mind, exercise your right to have an opinion, and demand that you be left alone! I am dismayed to find no-one is here.
He has gone.
The helpful cleaning lady is gathering her items.
‘He left?’ I ask her, with a smile that I hope conveys our mutual knowledge of his lunacy.
She looks at me with a blank expression. ‘Sorry, I don’t know.’ Then, in response to my vacant expression, she adds ‘I’ve just clocked in, love.’ She moves her arm in a swift motion, as if pushing a bug away.
I want to respond but my mouth is numb. I open it but no sound comes out. Someone is telling me to shut up. Are they? Stop resisting. Can’t you see? Oh nonsense! It is my mother’s voice. Is it? No it’s not. Well someone must be talking. You’re imagining it. I must be talking in my sleep. It must be stopped! The cogs and wheels rebel but the droning is dying down. Silence is back. It’s sorted now. Voices quelled. Again.
I look across the room we share with my mother. There is naught.