Lost for words
Robin Teese (Curtin University, Australia)
When he woke, it was in silence. The sprinklers had not yet started, and the noise of the traffic seemed absent altogether.
Ben glanced across at his wife. Still asleep. He rose and drew the curtains.
Dense fog lay over the city, populated, as far as you could see, by towers soaring to over a hundred stories. Sky was not something you talked about much these days, unless in jest. For of the sky there was little evidence.
Ben got back in bed and shook the covers. There was his wife, Melissa’s hair, rising from beneath; her roman nose, her cupid-bow’s smile. Her tousled head slipped back beneath the covers. Ben heaved himself out of bed.
He crept into his daughters’ room. Fast asleep. Strange, but he couldn’t hear the sound of their breathing, even when he leaned across to kiss the tops of their heads. Twins. Who’d have thought it? The only member of his family who had them, and for Ben and Melissa they were their tiny treasures. Not quite identical but good at ending each other’s sentences, as though playing follow-the-leader were natural to them.
The family lived in a four-bedroom unit on the thirtieth storey of one of the newer high-rises. You could always hear the lift going up and down as occupants commuted from home to work, work to home. The apartments were festooned with electronic gadgets that kept up a constant chatter, their lights winking at one another, never sleeping, because only humans slept.
He checked them now … nothing. No hum or click. The silence of stone.
Ben had an instant’s panic. He had opened his mouth but something had stopped him. The inhale normally preceding speech was missing. He snapped his lips shut. But the faint explosion he expected failed to register.
Two faces emerged from the blankets, pretty mouths working, making no more sound than their father before them, and all he could do is reach for them, cuddle them, kiss them in anguished silence.
‘— is that you?
The words chasing each other, only cupped in sound. Two little pixies, mouths fluttering open and closed, yet no trace of the beloved voices, the childish timbre still tinged with sleep. Their growing confusion as they realised, moment by moment, that something was wrong; that awareness, rising like the sun, that made the safety of their world less secure.
‘Daddy, please –
‘— hold me —
‘— I’m scared.’
This morning, as he cracked the soundless shell of his boiled egg and gingerly prised the skin away from the albumen, Ben felt the egg’s sharpness dig into his flesh. He was bleeding. His mouth opened, his upper teeth bit down on his lower lip, he exhaled with force and his throat contracted. But the expletive was still-born. Just as well. Melissa could never tolerate the F – word. It had always been that way. But why shouldn’t he express his feelings, rather than hold them in? It didn’t matter whether it was pain or pleasure or just to shout to the world he was here, that he was worth something. He wanted to say it now — more than ever now — but words literally failed him.
The twins appeared in the kitchen, like fairies, floating into silence. Ben turned his head to catch the noise of weeping …
‘Daddy’s hurt –
‘– We don’t want –
‘– To see you hurt, Daddy.’
… but strained to hear their speech.
He turned off the tap and went to the bathroom for a Band-Aid and disinfectant. Holding the bottle cautiously between finger and thumb, he plunged a cotton bud into the dark solution. He was beginning not to expect the sonic clues that might have given order to his actions. Instead, he fastened his attention on the sensation of things, on the hard, chill contours of the bottle, the wet sting of the cotton bud, the smooth texture of the Band-Aid strip that he stuck, with the utmost caution, fast to the seeping wound.
Made temporarily whole again, he returned to the kitchen, but the others had already vanished. From habit he craned his head, listening for the ripple of voices, but caught himself in time. He told himself he must be more careful from now on. Must be forewarned wherever sound was concerned. But even as he said it, the words whistling uselessly in his head, he knew he would fail, and keep on failing …
They’d liked the apartment at first, being almost up to the clouds – as the twins might describe it, peering up and down and pretending they were birds and could glide, effortless, through air. It was odd, now Ben thought about it, how happy they had been, how the darkness had still not entered their lives. He had a good job at the mines. It was FIFO at first— Fly In Fly Out — and it seemed to suit him jetting back and forward like that; the independence was definitely a plus, and every fortnight, when he took the elevator again to their nest in the sky, the relief at seeing his Melissa … Sex was bloody good, too, he thought with a smile, and the couple had never been closer.
Ben searched for a reason for this infernal quiet. He found a chair in the lounge room facing the floor-to-ceiling windows. There was nothing wrong with his hearing; he’d had it checked. So, was it something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on, a trick of the atmosphere he’d missed? Or it could be a nightmare he was locked up in, like a caged animal beating uselessly on the bars of sleep? This seemed the better explanation. If he could lull himself at least into that certainty, he might yet survive the morning. There would be no decision needed, no imperative to change track.
As he sat there, he saw in the window’s reflection his wife and two daughters cross quickly to the front door and then, a second later, an even heavier silence descended.
Ben could date the change in his relationship with Melissa from that first day in the hospital. They both knew it was not a planned pregnancy. It was a case of accept what nature had vouchsafed you, knuckle down and do your best by these little girls and lavish on them all the love you could. It was just a shame that Ben was away so much on FIFO, because he was sure he would have helped a lot more if he’d been around. Even when he was back from a shift, he might have changed a nappy or two, maybe ironed his own clothes. But such things need practice and Melissa could do without her husband’s hamfisted attempts at domestic chores. Yes, that was it. The guys in the mine could always back him up on it. When you’ve laboured underground for as long as he had – what … ten years and counting – who’s going to begrudge a man a little time off?
But it wasn’t good enough for Melissa. She always had to argue the point. And then that fateful day, when he’d come back home worn out and in no mood for a quarrel. He had hung back at the mine, done some overtime and then had a few drinks, nothing to worry about. A little bit of flirting, harmless kisses and hugs. Time just sort of … disappeared.
Ben. Where have you been? Her accusatory words made it even worse, and he had a headache like you wouldn’t believe, like the migraines from his childhood, that would send him whimpering into his bedroom to get away from everything, the noise, the light … Where have I been? — what’s she on about? She knows bloody well I’ve been working.
Your dinner’s been in the oven for hours. You told me you’d be home by six. Tell me what time it is, Ben.
I know what the fucking time is.
You’re not looking at your watch, there’s a bloody clock in here. Use your eyes, Ben. What time …?
He hadn’t meant to hit her. It was a reflex action. The sickening sound of bone on bone was not what he’d expected. Just a soft tap, no more than that, well shit, he hadn’t hit her that hard, had he? There was blood on his shirt, for god’s sake. And when he looked back that instant later, she was there, on the floor and moaning like a tortured lamb. But she’d asked for it, hadn’t she, with her complaining and him being so damn buggered and wanting a bit of quiet, not this constant nagging and all these questions like he was on trial or something.
She had managed to raise herself, and now stood facing him, leaning against the kitchen sink for support. The twins were asking for you. They stayed up as long as they could. Their little eyes …
Yeah, yeah … I know, you’re trying to make me feel guilty, and you’re succeeding. I’m sorry I …
Forget it. It doesn’t matter.
I said — it’s this FIFO, I know — you forget what it’s like — they turn you into animals — it’s not important … anymore. Her voice trailing off into silence. You can’t and you won’t change.
He went over to her. Tried to put his arm around her shoulders. She was rigid, her eyes staring forward, the blood on her cheek already drying.
Ben, I’m knackered. I’m going to bed. No … don’t … touch me.
It had started raining. Ben could verify the fact by looking at the window as the drops began multiplying on the glass. He gazed down between the buildings. Opened the window a crack and angled his head to catch the sound of wind and storm. It had become a game by now; a game whose rules he almost knew by heart, and yet he persisted in playing it. There seemed to be nothing else. And Melissa, the children … how long had they been gone?
Ben stared blankly down to the busy streets. Something brushed past him — a vibration, almost indistinct: his ears still oscillated where it had touched them. Ben looked down again. There, near the entrance to the apartments, in a small patch of grass, a column of spray leapt from a garden sprinkler. So incongruous in the rain. Ben started to laugh, but his laughter turned to tears. Tears for Melissa, for the twins, for his own hopeless life, for FIFO and the damage it had done them — for his wayward fists. The tears kept flowing. It may have been the first time he had ever heard himself weep.
Far below came the faint roar of engines. There had been a lull, but now the traffic was moving again.
Robin Teese has been writing fiction and poetry since 2014. Recently he finished a Masters degree in Media and Communications, with a focus on short and long story writing. He is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Curtin University, WA. Robin’s work has appeared in Pause magazine (2019) – an initiative of Curtin and Aberdeen Universities – SWAMP magazine, Quadrant, and in other online and hard copy publications. He is working on his first novel.