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THE SILENCE OF STARS

Philip Callow

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

He supposed he was old; and went on regardless. At fifty-nine he hadn't felt old, or even thought it. He turned sixty and at once thought it, but without caring. He'd stopped shaving; it became a beard, black and grey mixed. Now he rarely saw himself in a mirror. Never before a Bible reader, he found a sentence in Isaiah and jotted it down: 'The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them.' He combed his hair with hooked fingers usually, since there was no one to approve or disapprove. Worse, no one to please. 

To be old in England was to be shunted into a siding and forgotten, someone said. That's it, that's what I want; so I'll be old, he thought. No one admits to being outcast, let alone welcomes it. I do; it's my shameless dream. The idea had come stealing into him, first of all as a thought, a wish, then gradually mounting to a steady insistent yearning, that what he would like more than anything was some way of just walking off and leaving the world. Who would miss him ? If there was only a gate you could quietly walk through and disappear, out of sight of the world. He went around hugging this desire in secret, unwilling to confide it to anyone - not that there was anyone - until he realised it wasn't simply a means of consoling himself. No, he meant it. Then he got practical: he went deliberately looking for a hiding place. 

September20 

I've been sixty for a week. Here I am keeping a diary for the first time in my life. Do I mean a journal ? Anyway, a log of my days, of a solitude of days and nights. The idea of a journal has always appealed, but living for posterity seemed fatuous. Also I lacked patience. It was something others did, not me. Now I've got endless time, and to try to account for it, make sense of it, justify it even, seems right. Who knows, it might redeem the black something stuck in my chest. Unable to say more-a journal raises the question of total honesty that I can't deal with, not yet. I'll talk to my wife in it, constantly, incessantly, even though I shall never see her again in this life. Sometimes it strikes me I'm out to convince myself that I still live. Do I ? After the smash, for a long time I had no interest in living. I won't touch a car, go everywhere on foot. Afterwards I was a ghost in the world, I conversed with ghosts. Having to pretend that life went on as usual was a howling farce, so I buried myself away here. 

Nobody here knows my history. If I could I'd erase my name. People here, mercifully few, are no more to me than the sheep and cattle on the hills, the pigs rooting peacefully outside my back door a few yards away on the other side of the wire fence. 

This is the Cotswolds. Sunk away up a long muddy drive, all potholes, between rows of poplars in the heart of the country. I'm no countryman: town bred. Being in the country for me is always like holidays, an escape from somewhere. What draws me to it in my dead condition is the emptiness, the blessed scarcity of people. 

The advert in the Independent spoke of a cottage, warm, well-equipped. Warm if you worked at it, as for well-equipped it wasn't true. To him it was a small stone house, a kind of miniature of the grand stone farmhouse on three floors a little further on up the mud and shale, past the barns and outhouses. Farmer Symonds was like no farmer he'd ever met. Spoke incisively, a person of some culture, was unwell, mentioning this in every other remark, along with his contempt for the contemporary scene. Bristled with hostility, overbearing in spite of himself, yet genuinely anguished over injustice in general, the treatment of farm animals in particular. A pungent sense of humour, often only comprehensible to himself. His features large and squashed, out of which sprout gone-to-seed tangled eyebrows. The wife, his opposite in every way, was sweet-tempered, a profoundly deaf woman who came and went silently. She reminded him of his saintly grandmother. He imagined Mrs S. putting her arms round him and saying, 'What is It, my duck ?' If she had a voice, that is.

Symonds, instead of asking for references, probed for likes and dislikes. His blunt approach was acceptable to the other's craven state. 

'My memory's terrible,' he said, almost barked. 'Tell me your name again.' 

'Hopkin. Matthew.' 

'Married ?' 

The man shook his head, though the answer was yes, always will be. Once married, forever married. A married man to the end. 

'How long did you say you wanted the cottage?'

 'How long can I have it for?'

 'That depends. Do you have a job?'

 'I'm retired.'

 'Know anything about organic farming?'

 'No.'

Suddenly the deal was clinched. Symonds extended his rough paw, cracked a smile. Startled, Hopkins stood up. Mrs S. entered silently from a side door of the large flagged kitchen, dominated by a huge Raeburn along one wall. She smiled at the stranger and went on, out through a rear door into the house somewhere.

My wife,' Symonds said without looking. 'She's deaf.'

He cursed under his breath, rose stiffly from the table as though to ease pain in his back and stood over by the kitchen dresser.

'If you take the place for several months we'll adjust the rent accordingly,' he said through grimaces.

'Twelve months?'

'Better make it six. You might fall out with us. Or vice versa. 'True,'he laughed.

Symonds stared belligerently.

'I'm serious.'

He came back and sat down again. Hopkins heard himself say, then wanting to bite his tongue, 'Thank you for your time.'

'Do you have a dog "'

‘No.'

'Good. We don't allow them.'

'Anything else?'

'You drive, I take it.?'

'Yes, but I don't have a car.'

'Are you socialist ?' he asked abruptly.

'I was once.

Symonds was glaring over his head.

'No point in being anything else. With the government we've got, it's a matter of morals. I ask you. They lack all principle.'

'I'll go and get settled in,' the new tenant said, moving off.

'You like music?'

'Oh yes.'

'Poetry?'

'Certainly.'

The farmer stood up violently, gripping the edge of the table. Again he thrust out his hand.

'Then we'll get on.'

'I hope so.'

'You should find everything you need up there. Shout if you don't.'

'I'll pay a month in advance,' Hopkin began. Symonds waved him off.

‘Later, later.'

He reflected that evening that he liked Symonds, if you could like someone impregnable like a wall. Leaving him he went out into the autumn mud and deepening dusk, glad to be alone again. Talking to anyone was a strain; all his conversations were interior ones and he resented it when they were interrupted. Outer ones jarred, hit his ears like notes from a bugle. He walked away down the farmyard of cow-pats and straw in long ropes, the ground rutted by tractors and trailers, the air heavy with the smell of dung, of a whole summer come to a halt and starting to rot.

In his strange cottage-house which had nothing to do with him he unpacked his few belongings. There was a. TV on a tea trolley; it had an indoor aerial. The picture was terrible. He tried the wire loop in various positions and then gave up, telling himself the company it offered was spurious. He switched on his radio and killed it at once. Sitting in an armchair with broken springs he looked at the cassettes he had brought, with nothing to play them on. The silence in the place and outside, pressing on the windows, insisted on being heard. After a while he walked about, outwardly healthy but in poor shape within, thankful for the company of the sounds his feet made as if they belonged to someone else. His dejection waited for him in all the corners.

Upstairs in the biggest bedroom he stood at the window. A car went bumping past, wallowing in the holes, lights blazing. Then nothing. The window frame was silted with dead flies. He looked at the bed and fought a longing to lie down and sleep, so as to wake up in another day with at least a chance.

Downstairs he passed through the kitchen to the high lean-to conservatory with its floor of rough concrete and its enormous boiler, like the cylinder of a steam engine stranded on its side. It burned great bulks of timber and split logs which he could wheel in from the open-sided shipper a few yards up the drive. There was a wheelbarrow he could use. Pipes from this strange contraption provided hot water and central heating downstairs, so he was told.

A mild night. Standing outside the conservatory on rank grass he listened to nothing, then to the snuffling of pigs. Then again nothing. Deep in the wood close by an owl hooted once, an extraordinary soft tender sound, welling out of the dark. He stood there like a post, telling himself that what he heard was the voice of the night itself.

Hanging on there for no other reason than that his legs had carried him, he thought: Should I go to bed ? He would only lie in a wash of thoughts and memories, most of them desolate. There was something habit-forming about mournfulness. For so many nights he had curled up into it. Sleep came when you gave up all hope of it. It was two years now almost to the day since the smash. He walked about with his sound limbs and people must think he was undamaged. Nothing could be the same, but who was to know ? He didn't want to adapt to what once was, now the heart was torn out of it. He had come here in the hope of changing his life. That's to say if I have one to change, he told himself. The old life is dead.

There was a strong musty smell in the bedroom. Before spreading his sheet he pressed his hand flat on the mattress. It felt dry enough. The earthy smell was up his nose, everywhere, faint but unmistakable even in the kitchen. After a while he stopped caring.

Under the duvet he thought of what he'd do tomorrow: never mind the next and the next. A sane start would be to make a shopping list of essentials. Then for the march down the unsurfaced drive, at the road turning left to Stroud, two or three miles, dropping steadily for part of the way. He might look for a bike. In the other direction was Ash-under-Hill, only half a mile. They called it Ash. The soft-ness of the name made him want to go there. But first things first, he had to get his bearings, establish himself, dig in. Essential: a letter to his mother in Dorset who he knew was waiting anxiously to hear from him. Oh mother, mother, look at your son, he thought or said under his breath, but it came out aloud. A sad chant. His sad mother, alone as he was, desperately unhappy and with no hope of changing anything now. Who knows, maybe he was deceiving himself. Jesus changed my life, they said, eyes shining, those he had once pitied as simpletons and now envied.

He was half asleep, drifting off in broken water. He woke wIth a jerk. Somebody was in the cottage below him. The bedroom was pitch dark. Lying rigid with attentiveness he listened hard. Clanking noises. Silence. Groping for a dressing gown he sneaked downstairs with a torch.

'Hello?'

A voice called, 'Sorry, it's me. I thought nobody was in.'

Going through the kitchen he came face to face with a big figure, young, blocking the way to the conservatory.

'Sorry to disturb you. I looked in to see if you needed any help with the boiler. You haven't lit it yet,so I'll get it started for you if that's all right.'

'What time is it ?

The man glanced at his watch.

'Nine-thirty. I'm the son, by the way. Michael. You're Mr Hopkin.'

'Matthew.'

Michael Symonds: an intelligent, handsome face, a boyish charm. Oxford graduate. Hopkins thought, this family is full of surprises, not really taking in rapid instructions for the care and operation of the boiler, which was French. To hear him talk you could imagine he was recommending the virtues of a person. As he spoke he kept poking bits of kindling through the open hatch into the thing's iron belly. He struck a match. After a few minutes he began loading up with split logs. 'It's splendid really, once you get the hang of it. We had it installed a year ago. You can pack it as full as you like before you go to bed and it should still be going next morning. Works better when it's packed full of fuel. Know where your supply of fuel is?'

'Your father told me.

'Right, I'll leave you in peace. Apologies again for barging in unannounced. Hope I didn't alarm you.

'Puzzled me, that's all.'

'Good. Sleep well.'

He went clumping off in his 'gum boots. Hopkin locked the door behind him and went back to bed. But now he was thoroughly awake. There was someone knocking on the side door. It was the boiler man. He waved at Hopkins through the glass. The tenant let him in.

'No need to lock this, unless you want to, that is.'

'I'll remember.'

'I meant to explain about the valve,' he said.

'Valve?'

'This one, on the wall.'

'What's it for?'

Michael beamed. 'If you need more heat,' he said, 'open it full. Otherwise leave it half open as it is now.'

'Got it.'

'My father tells me you're a reader.' He hung forward,

'All my life, yes. Not so much now perhaps.'

'Books are addictive,' he said solemnly. 'Do you find that?'

'You could say a disease,' Hopkin said, venturing a smile.

Michael opened his mouth to launch into something, then cut it short.

'Must get on. Talk to you again I hope.'

Hopkin agreed in theory that they should. Went to turn the key after the big fellow, stopped himself, and went back to bed.

It was another day. He got up confused, as if hung-over, and went down the slipperry open staircase of polished wood slats in bare feet, feeling safer that way. Filling the kettle from the tap made an unearthly crash. The silence ran back. He switched on and then stood like an imbecile, spellbound, listening to the faint stir of the water around the kettle element as the heat entered. At the front window, holding his cup of tea he looked out at the messy drive, the barns, the coarse field tilting steeply upwards. No sign of life. He looked out at nothing.

He had brought a few books, which he put on a shelf and then ignored, as he did his old Olivetti portable. Somewhere on the way to here the clue to books had been lost. It was how he wanted it. Symonds had lent him a map of the area. He preferred not to open it, to find out where he was by degrees, like a blind man. It was an old instinct. On holidays abroad he would try to avoid tourist guides. Though he felt buried and nowhere like an old earth-man without a language he knew he was not lost: not here, not in England. Before coming he had read some letters by a man visiting Australia in the twenties. Over and over he marvelled at the emptiness, and said at one point that if you wanted to withdraw from life altogether and cease caring about anything, the interior of Australia was the place. It was pre- history: life hadn't properly begun there, it was peopled with ghosts, the souls of future centuries. Maybe I should have tried it, Hopkin thought. Here there were presences in abundance, populating this intense living quiet.

He ate a bowl of cereals, then wrote a list for when he walked down the road for the time it took to reach Stroud. He had arrived there on the country bus from Cheltenham, where he used to live. When he came back from the shops he would write to his mother, who at eighty two still saw him as a child. Her cottage was much smaller than this place; she lived pressed around with old beams and thick damp walls. She would have been up for hours, simply because to her it was shameful to lie in bed when everyone was about their business. What if someone called? The curtains had to be drawn back or some busybody might think she was ill. When she was, it was with worry. On the way down the red earth, rubble-strewn drive between the gracefully waving poplars he met a man driving a tractor, pulling an empty trailer. He nodded briefly, went on.

In Stroud, a town of narrow streets on very steep hills, he bought vegetables and fruit and bread, and found a stationer for paper and envelopes. There were several poky cafes and it made sense to have lunch there. The one he chose seemed to be run entirely by elderly ladies. The one who came for his order reminded him of his mother, but was much happier. She smiled when he decided on the quiche and baked potato, as if he'd given her pleasure. Was she simply pleased to be serving others ? Everything that occurred now, all these first impressions he stored up half unconsciously to put in the letter later, should he get round to writing it.

Coming out of Stroud on foot he began writing the day's journal entry in his head. Once you got into the habit this happened, whether the page was open in front of you or not. Until it was done you were under pressure. He had walked past a large house set back from the road, and from the bell pushes he saw it was in flats. To the journal In his head he told this, going on to confide that he was reminded of the rambling flat in the Georgian house in Cheltenham where he lived with Lena, his wife. The house had peeling yellow stucco. It still had, though now his son and his family lived there. From its front windows you looked down on a railed and gravelled access road. Beyond the railings and shrubs and the main road were the trees and shrubs of the little park in the middle of the square. All the residents of the square were entitled to a key. He went into this private garden only once, sitting down on a bench and trying to like it. He felt stupid. Though he had a right to be there, somehow he was an intruder.

The house was on three floors. They were at the top. All the years there ran together as he remembered, ascended the three broad stone steps and went in, up the linoleum stairs, the stairwell that was never decorated, past the second floor flat and on up to his: entered the narrow dog-leg corridor, sharp right past the kitchen and then the open space with doors opening off, two bedrooms and a big square sitting room. From the sash window in the kitchen you looked down on the overgrown garden in shadow from its high brick walls, one of them crumbling, bulging. A cat appeared there and vanished from time to time. That and the birds were the only signs of life. One year, new tenants moved in on the ground floor and a little girl ran up and down, clapping her hands and suddenly whirling on her heels to stare up at him.

He could see her there, calling him to the kitchen window. When he talked to her now it was there, preparing the meals and in a mess, absorbed in the strange contentment he found in cooking. Her daughter from a previous marriage, then their son - they turned the box room into a den for him - this was their cell of good living. It endured twenty-six years. Endured ? The time flew by. Nobody mentioned boredom. What were the quarrels about ? He couldn't remember. Why did she strike at him once, hitting him across the face in her rage, shaking all over ? It didn't matter. They had lapses and then recovered, went on sanely and perhaps dully again. They were comfortable with each other, good friends. In the early years their desire was fierce, flamey. He would press her waist in the kitchen, she would sag a little into him. He would always be filling his hands with her. Shy creatures, both of them, they escaped from the burden of themselves into each other's bodies. Arriving home from work, opening the silent door at the top of the stairs, he would rejoice in the mystery of their cloistered lives as he penetrated the secret domain of the long dog-leg corridor. Of course, yes, it was windowless, a blind channel leading to an inner sanctuary, to the womb their home was -how could he have forgotten?

Their desire guttered down with familiarity, an old story, flaring up to surprise them when they assumed it was extinct, gone for good. If only he could feel again the joy of the leaping into her and then the benediction, in the midst of such barrenness ? So easy I So simple! Lena, his journal mourned, I was in pieces and you mended me. What did I do for you ? Lena, come back. I can't live like this. I am just a bundle of old memories. Wait for me.