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Le Bois

I step onto the crossing. The green figure wavers in front of my eyes. It begins to flash. Quickening my pace, I look to my right. I check for traffic. In the distance I see a tram. It grows larger. Above my head, I hear the telltale shake in the wires. The pavement is lined with trees. They have shed much of their leaves. Branches pierce the flush of gold and yellow. From the bakery on the corner, comes the smell of freshly baking bread. My eyes fall to my watch. If I do not hurry, I will be late. I am nearly always late. I nearly always have to rush. Once every four weeks I come here. Once very four weeks I stop in front of the door, then hesitate before ringing the bell. I stare at the polished metal plaque with the name on it: Dr W Van den Berg, Psychotherapist. Inside will be the book lined walls, the tidy desk and the soft leather sofa; this is the sofa I have come to associate with breaking the silence. Sitting on this sofa, I will hear my own voice in the quiet. I will attempt to talk things through, will occasionally look up at the face in front of me: impartial, professionally interested, the eyes not giving anything away. Is it that I have to pay someone to listen to all the things no one else has the time or the interest to hear? Do I have to pay someone to broker the silence, to enter the silence, to acknowledge the silences existence?

I recall yesterday. It was not typical. After making an excuse, saying I felt ill, I clicked closed the catches on my briefcase, pushed the pile of papers on my desk to the side, and walked out the front door. Cycling the short distance to where I lived, I had a curiously childish sensation. This was not something I was in the habit of doing. I am not the type who takes time off, who leaves the office on the first convenient pretext. I walked about my apartment and felt restless. Picking up a newspaper, I tried reading. I thought of turning on the television, but decided against it. I was anxious and uneasy. There was something at the back of my mind, something I could not put my finger on. Going to the window, I looked down to the street. On the other side of the pavement was a line of chestnut trees. Their green was thinning, their fullness turned and drifting away. Behind was the park with its grassy spaces, its ponds that froze in winter, 1

the long pathway to the south with its bent over arms of trees: in the distance apartments rose into the sky. The street was deserted except for two boys hurriedly wheeling a bicycle along. The streetlamps with their dark, green paintwork, stood silently. I thought of how when it rained the noiseless fall was caught in the arc of their glow, how this light seemed to reveal a wet night from the inside out. It was still there: its black paintwork shining under a shower of leaves. Parked between the other cars, its shape marked it. Its age set it apart. It caught the eye, made its own space and was the only car of its type in the neighbourhood. I stood looking, my hands in my pockets, my eyes fixed. Again I felt the strange uneasiness. It was like someone whispering just behind me, but when I turned to see who it was, to put a face to the voice, there was no one there. Strolling back to the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water. From the back balcony, a network of roofs stretched away, their different shapes and colours catching the eye and I thought of going out. Where would I go? Did I really need anywhere particularly to go to? Could I just not go for the going itself? My keys rattled in the lock, echoed down the stairway. The building was quiet. It was always hushed. Occasionally you saw someone in the hallway. There would be a moment of tension, a moment of staring into the face of someone you knew only to see and then the polite good-day, the remark not meant to ruffle the smooth silence of civil living. Once I thought, half-jokingly, it was like a house in an old gothic story. A house where all the people are in fact actually ghosts. They only appear at certain times of day in poses they have been doomed to hold for eternity, and then once again fade into nothingness. Could people really be so quiet, could their existence make so little sound? The chrome of the handle was cool under my fingers, the door felt reassuringly heavy as it swung open. Sitting behind the wheel, I clicked the key into the ignition, turned it, felt a ripple of pleasure as the engine came on. I pulled the safety belt across my chest, edged carefully out into the street. The afternoon was dark. The sky pressed down, its gunmetal pressing onto the windows of offices, shop fronts, crowded pavements. I kept my eyes on the road. The traffic surged forward and I was being pulled in its tow. Above me, signs appeared: cities, different directions, routes to choose, a myriad of possibilities. Finding the ring road, I turned onto it and circled the city. Driving and driving until the lights came on, I felt as though I were moving through an electric landscape. Then I relaxed and everything became fluid and in the darkness. Under the rows of perfectly placed motorway lights, I was somehow in another world. I was part of a journey, 2

part of some unending movement of people. Something that was going somewhere yet did not know exactly where. I smile when I think of the car: an old Mercedes 200 D. It is still roadworthy and was first registered in nineteen sixty-three. It has never been refurbished, though the engine has been overhauled. This cost nearly as much as buying a newer and smaller car. Its width, the way it defies the compactness of modern styles, I like. The dashboard is bulky, a little awkward. At first I found the gear change on the steering column difficult. When I go out onto the motorway I notice with pleasure how other drivers stare at me, how they look in surprise. Once I was stopped on a speeding check. The police officer peered out from under his helmet, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. There was the routine examining of the licence, of papers, and then, a smile creeping about terse lips, the voice said, they no longer made cars with quite the same style. In this car I feel I am someone else. Its age, its uniqueness gives me a sense of significance. Every time I step into it, I feel I step out of the race to discard, to modernise. It is its difference. It dislocates time and provides a sense of continuity.

Sometimes when reading, I am suddenly aware of a silence between the words. It is as if the words are defined only by the spaces between them, the spaces that form them. The words themselves are only marks on a space, their ability to speak only matched by my ability to decipher their relation to that space. Often this process creates an inner silence and in that silence I feel as if the writer is actually speaking inside me. It is likely it is my own silence I encounter and the voice of the writer becomes the voice of my silence and this silence is not in fact silence but only the absence of the active world, the absence of noise, the absence of distraction. This does not apply to television. When watching television I become passive, I take in the whole screen rather than any particular event or action within the screen. If I do not concentrate on what I am watching within the screen, if I do not counteract the passive consuming of the screen, I feel myself move as if to the side, as if I were not quite inside, but somewhere in a space between myself and the screen. Then there is the silence of neither sending nor receiving. This silence is different. It is a silence always shifting, always needing to be defined. It always reduces itself to nothingness: to the momentary gesture. It blurs the distinction between an inner and an outer silence. Sometimes it even seems to be an inner silence but turns out to be another silence: a half silence: an uneasy silence of truth and untruth. A silence that 3

tugs with its voice at my voice, that supplants my voice with a voice made from many voices. A deceptive silence that suggests it can be my friend, that it can fill all the empty spaces of my life.

As I left the ring-road, as I slowed and encountered the early evening traffic, I was thinking about the vacuum-like quality of the citys southeast. All the lights twinkled in the night and the motorway stretched away behind me. In the distance there was a line of high-rises. They seemed remote, to be lost, to be overshadowed by the newness of the office buildings. Their plain reflections were caught in the glass and steel. They were held there like a shadow across a smiling face. You read in newspapers what it was like to live there. It was described as a problem area. Mainly it consisted of refugees, immigrants, those some liked to consign to the periphery of society. There always seemed to be a lack of funds, a lack of organisation, a lack of communication. The crime rate was high. For the young or those born there, there was often nothing other than a difficult future. These newspaper articles gave a false impression, drew attention to the area under a cover of concern but only really served to underline the fact that this was an area in trouble, an area where really, you were glad you did not live. Once I got stuck there. I was on business, was returning from the sixth floor when the lift went dead. There was only one other person with me. The dark face, sighed, shook its head and looked at me. I glanced anxiously at my watch. I was scheduled for another appointment. As I was the one standing closest to the panel where the switches were, I began pushing. There was nothing, only an occasional thin, metallic buzz. Perhaps it was just a momentary failure, there would suddenly be a surge of power and we would find ourselves moving again. I tapped my foot, wanted to pace but remained still. The lift smelt stale and dirty. The sides were covered in graffiti. Why do some people feel a public lift is a good place to urinate in, I wondered? The stranger leaned back and looked patiently at the ceiling. The seconds ticked by. Coughing lightly, I asked how long it generally took for a breakdown to be discovered, for a technical problem like this to be sorted out. The stranger smiled, said it depended, sometimes it was quick, sometimes slow, but never more than a couple of hours. I felt claustrophobic, felt the need to say something, the need to talk. What did we have in common, but that we were both stuck in a lift, that we might unwillingly have to share this space for maybe a couple of hours? It was then I noticed the photograph on an old record cover in this strangers bag. Staring at it for some minutes, I asked. The stranger nodded. Yes, it was who I thought it was. Did I like that kind of music?

We were there two hours. We found plenty to talk about. As we waited for the power to come on again, for the technicians to get the lift going, I listened to this strangers story. I heard of where he came from, how long he had lived there, his family, their hopes and their struggle to hold onto their dignity. And there was a resonance when this somewhat sad face in front of me said, it is not the prejudice you see, the shaven heads on football terraces, the politicians ranting about foreigners. It is the silent prejudice that hurts most. It is the prejudice that refuses to acknowledge, the prejudice that is never heard: the prejudice always implicit in a lack of response. When the lift came back on, I realised I too felt this silence. Stepping into the light, I would like to have said sometimes I saw an anxiety behind the faces around me. I would like to have said sometimes I thought this to be a form of despair: a realisation that there is something missing. Yet it is also an unwillingness to ask what. It is an unwillingness to disturb the surface of things.

Just as there are different silences so there are different voices. Sometimes I can tell a lot about someone from listening to his or her voice. It can be the inflection, the way a particular word is said. It can be the manner of emphasis, the fall or flow of speech. There are voices that have depth, that carry feeling. There are voices that suggest different possibilities of meaning. And there are short voices. It is the short voices, the voices that chatter, gloss over, that attract the attention: the voice of the instantaneously, digestible soundbite: the thirty second voice of brightness and happiness: the voice woven neither of lies nor truth. Will there ever be a day when these voices will be so widespread that their mendacity, their thin tediousness will become an overbearing monotone. When speech will be like the empty, deadening pitch heard when transmission is off air. Will ever a day come when there will be people who have no concept of the depth, the variance of their own voice? What will happen to language then? Will it too become thin and empty; gradually wither down to a few predictable sayings: and the searching, complex voices? The voices that bring with them a natural inner silence, the silence of listening to another human being talk, speak to feelings, to the heart, what will happen to them?

Despite feeling better after returning from my drive, despite spending the evening with friends, I found it difficult to sleep. I felt uncomfortable and unable to relax. Around 3 I got up and went into the living room. Sitting on the floor in the darkness, crossing my legs, I faced the window. I had forgotten what the room looked like without light: the instinctive reaction - coming in, immediately reaching for the switch. How brighter the light you were used to, the darker the absence of that light seemed. It was surprising how the room appeared. The contours slowly reformed. The bookcase, the stereo, the sofa, the small table, the plants by the window, all became familiar again. And the white light of the moon fell across the floor, making the shadows from the branches of the trees run in spindly lines over the wall. Observing the still shapes of curled leaves, I waited for one to float down silently and slowly: like something real but ungraspable, through the room. Then I lay back and felt, for a moment, I could sense the whole world moving: spinning and turning its way around the sun. Only now I could not see the sun. Now it was the moon and its autumn light that held me: the moon and its pale rays that defined me. Then I remembered. It was years ago in Paris with a girlfriend. Her name was Charlotte. She had loose, dark hair. Her skin was pale and there was always a warmth in her face. We had impulsively decided on a long weekend. Then we were both in our late twenties. The hotel we stayed in was in the ninth. It was on a corner where the street split in two: a strange fork, deceptively simple. Twice we got lost. Twice we approached it from the wrong end only to find ourselves having to retrace our steps. On the Sunday morning it was bitterly cold. Dense low-lying cloud weighed on the city. We found ourselves walking with time to kill before our afternoon train. The city was quiet. It seemed concerned only with its own internal rhythm. We followed the Boulevard de Magenta toward the Place de La Rpublique. Along the pavement we passed restaurants and cafs. I remembered old men fingering short, dark cigarettes, and woman, their lips red, their eyes melancholy, staring pensively into some world of personal memory. Leafless trees stood in serene lines as the traffic drifted by. I felt tense and she was quiet. It was a dead cold: cold typical of February. The sky seemed to be rolling over us like an inverted dome. She pulled her coat tighter against her body, pushed her loose hair up under her hat, her scarf to her chin. I put my arm around her, felt her breath against my face, smelt her perfume mingle with the city air. We came to a metro station. My eyes scanned the tangle of lines until they rested on a large green area in the bottom right-hand corner. Pulling the map from my pocket, I read the name out. Le Bois de Vincennes. She laughed lightly, corrected my pronunciation. 6

It occurred to me while buying the tickets that it was perhaps silly. We had no idea where we were going. The woman behind the ticket window, shrugged her shoulders, raised her eyebrows, said it was worth a visit, if for nothing else to walk in. I lay on the floor of the room and heard my voice in the silence. We are in the wood and have walked around for about an hour. We are far from the point where we entered. It is no longer so cold. No longer that dead cold. She says she thinks it may snow. I agree. The pathway is thickly lined with trees. There is a clearing through a maze of trunks. A path has been worn through the undergrowth. I step away then call to her to follow me. The trees are nearly all leafless. Their hardened bark, their branches turn and twist and cut across my vision. Stretching up into the grey, impassive sky above me, their tips seem to form a delicate vein-like cover. It is as if I have stepped into an anomaly. As if I have stepped into another place, another world. Beneath my feet, the ground is tangled and uneven. It is strewn with bits of fallen branches. They crack as I step on them. She comes after me, calls to me to wait. I stop. We stand there a moment, looking about us. Her eyes are brighter and bluer in the grey light. We walk on. I tell her when I was a child there was a woman in the apartment next to where we lived who played the piano. Often she practiced and particularly on winter afternoons. I loved to hear the notes hang in the muffled air between the walls. They seemed to be silver, to be turning something inside out, to call quietly of some sort of sadness, some sort of longing. Every summer I left the city and went with my family to a little house we owned on the coast. Often I wandered off alone. I loved to find the open fields, to walk as far as I could into them, stop, look up and spin. Stretching my arms out, I would spin and spin and spin until I would fall. Then I would lie there, watching the sky turn around me, watching it swim before my eyes. I would imagine I could sense the beat of the wings of birds high above me, the stiff grass of the dunes along the strand. I could smell the glassy sea. She slips her arm through mine. The branches across our path grow thicker. Here the undergrowth is not so broken. Suddenly I say to her to run. I hear her ask what I am doing but I have already broken away. My feet, awkward at first, move quickly over the ground. Dry, brittle branches snap against my body. Their tips brush and sting my face. I run, not caring, not knowing why. My breath is sharp in my throat. It comes in gasps. In my chest my heart begins to thump. The blood presses against my forehead. Behind me somewhere, I hear her footsteps, her voice shouting to me to slow down. Except for the sound of us crashing through the trees, the occasional call of a bird, there is nothing, only quietness. Then I stop: stop and look up. I put my hands into the air. It has begun to snow. Large, soft flakes fall 7

around me. They float through the heavy sky. They form unexpectedly out of the greyness, out of the quiet. Gently, they land on my face. They are like an energy appearing and evading the network of spindly trees, the tangle of wood. Then I start to spin around. I spin the way I would when I was a child. I move my feet over the rough, cold ground. The sky and the tops of the trees form a circle. Faster and faster I go. Somewhere inside my head a voice is saying I will fall; I do not care. I spin and spin until I find myself lying on the floor of the wood. Snowflakes touch the ground softly next to me. The dead leaves, leaves that have not yet rotted into the earth, smell bitter and sharp. Beneath my face is the hard winter ground; the stillness is complete, the silence, complete. I am listening, but there is nothing. It is as if there is another level of sound. A level of hearing that has always been there: a level recovered. Then she reaches me. Her cheeks are flushed. Her hair is loose and falling across her eyes. She is gasping. She is completely out of breath. I turn over on my back and begin to smile. She drops down on her knees beside me. We both begin to laugh in deep, breathless laughs. We lie laughing in this hushed world, the sound of our laughter running up into the white, thickening air, into the snow silently and softly descending around us.

I stood before the bathroom mirror. I ran the electric razor over my chin. I moved it in slow, regular circles. Where was she now? Would she recognise me if she saw me. Would she remember me? About a year ago, as I was reading a magazine, I saw her photograph. It was a section about people who worked in the media. Looking through the list of telephone numbers I kept I found only one entry. When it was written, where we were living then, I could not remember. I waited for an answer. The quiet and insistent tone pulsed in my ear. It seemed to me with every second the space between each pulse grew longer. It rang and rang until the connection cut itself off. All week I tried. Eventually I got an answer. My heart jumped. A strange sensation clutched at me when I heard the receiver being picked up. Did I really wish to know? There was a pause when I asked. A mans voice said no one of that name lived there. For a moment I thought of explaining, thought of asking if maybe this voice knew where I could reach her. Then I stopped. I said I was sorry; I must have dialled a wrong number. There was a curt goodbye, and then the receiver was put down. For maybe a full minute I stood listening to the hum of that empty line. 8

Sometimes when walking and it begins to rain, I jump on a tram. I cannot help but notice the faces around me. They move anxiously, as if turned in on themselves. What would happen if I could stop one of these trams just once? If I could suspend its movement, suspend the flow of time around it. What would people have to say, what stories could they tell? Looking into their lives, what degrees of happiness or sadness would I uncover there? It is difficult not to notice people avoid each other. Gazes are averted. When eyes meet, there is blankness. There is a pretence of not seeing. I also sit, my head turned, staring fixedly out the window. Perhaps we do not really want to know the ins and outs of our fellow humans lives. We avoid all contact except for those we consider our loved ones. Maybe the surface is never meant to be broken; there are simply people in their homes and the silence around them. There is the silence in my apartment: the silence in my thoughts: the silence when I turn out the light beside the bed each night. This silence does not bother me. It is simply a silence. It is the silence of my breathing when I have slept well, the silence over buildings in the evening light, the silence I feel when I walk through the park early in the morning. It is the other silence that troubles me. The other silence is not so much a silence, as a hiss. It is a silence often full yet faceless: the silence behind the words of personal announcements in newspapers: those seeking contact with others who are desperate or lonely. The silence in sad faces pushing their way between the shelves of a supermarket: the silence in popular music relentlessly piped over shopping centre floors. In this silence is the silence of not hearing, of not listening. This is the silence of a driven world. It is the silence of the telephone ringing. The silence of the telephone answered but unable to answer.

I push the bell. I step back and wait for the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. The street is quiet. It is always quiet. I drag my shoe across some fallen leaves in the porch. The metal plaque with the name shines in the late autumn sunshine. As I am about to ring again, there is a click and the door opens. It is the doctors wife, not his secretary. She looks at me questioningly and I say my name. The doctor is

still with someone, she explains, but if I would like to take a seat in the waiting room I need only wait a couple of minutes. Then she smiles. The hallway smells of coffee, of toasted bread. There is the faint aroma of cigar smoke. I find the waiting room and sit in one of the armchairs. I unbutton my coat and lean forward, my breathing hard. I am aware of a curious tension. The curtains are pulled neatly back from the window. An apple tree in the garden is visible; its drooping leaves are pale red and fading yellow. On a low glass table there is a vase of fresh flowers. Scattered over the chairs, are various magazines. Picking one up, I glance through it. I am just about to begin reading when I hear the door of the room next to me open, the murmur of two voices, the brief till the next time, the receding steps and the sweep of a figure through the hallway. Then the doctors face is peering around at me, his glasses dropped to the end of his nose, his dark blue shirt set off by a bright yellow tie, and he is saying, Jan?

Copyright Peter Millington. May 1996.


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