After three years I’m well enough to meet the couple who live next door for the first time. They talk about the town, the street, the people they know, our neighbours. And in return I find myself telling them about the things I hear from my room: the rumble of the trains, a runner that slaps along the pavement, the children who play in the garden of the house across the road, the house with the wrought-iron gate that clangs shut behind the postman every morning and I wait and listen for the slam of the letterbox downstairs as he pushes through the mail. I tell them about the blackbird that sings every evening, even though it’s winter; about how, on Sunday mornings, I sometimes hear the church bells, blown in gusts on the wind. They say it’s as if I’m on a silent retreat – no TV, no radio, no computers, no books, no conversation; aware of what remains when everything else is stripped away. They say this as if it’s something beautiful. I tell them I keep a bowl of water in my room for the cat, because it’s such a sweet, gentle sound when she laps from it.
I don’t tell them that sometimes, sounds hurt me: birds scratching the roof tiles, the slam of a car door; that a teaspoon clinked against a mug will make me flinch.
In the evenings, I hear Paul downstairs, clattering pans, coaxing the cat outside, listening to the radio, watching TV, the sounds muffled and bearable because of the walls and floors and doors between us. When there’s comedy on, I get to hear him laugh. I’m almost always alone, but only ever feel lonely on those evenings when Paul is out, and the children and the traffic and the birds have fallen quiet, and the house is utterly still.
Early summer; we have a night of storms. There’s some half-hearted thunder, but it’s the rain, pelting on the roof, the driveway, the road, that wakes us and keeps us awake. By morning, the rain has stopped, but it’s quiet. There are floods: no buses, no trains, no one about. Even the birds are silent. The world seems paused, holding its breath, as if waiting to see what will happen next.
During the morning, sounds slowly return: cars, buses, people talking in the street. But the birds remain mute, and it makes me uneasy. I heard the same silence during a solar eclipse in 1999. I watched it in St James’s Park, along with all the other civil servants who’d been let out of their offices for the occasion. The birds were singing as it grew dark, but when it was fully dark – dark enough to be night – they fell quiet; and we fell quiet, too, unnerved, not by the darkness, which was thrilling and expected, but by this sudden, absolute silence, by how readily nature could be fooled.
It’s 4 o’clock before the birds start to call again.
Last night the rain broke into my dreams, and for the first time in years I dreamt I was well. I walked with my parents through the flooded streets of my hometown, Christmas shopping in the rain, so completely restored I was unaware of my own restoration, as if I had never been ill. For those few hours, my subconscious understood that the falling rain posed a more immediate threat to my safety, my wellbeing, my life, than my illness. The sound of the rain pushed my illness aside. I remembered how it felt to move freely in the world.
Sometimes I dream of children, other people’s, or my own, the ones this illness has stopped me from having. They’re babies or toddlers, and they’re crying, but I’m too weak to lift them, or hold them in my arms.
Mostly, I dream I’m back at school or university and that I’m failing: failing my exams, failing to keep up with my contemporaries, failing to get the good degree I was promised would provide the foundation for a happy and successful life. For a long time, I thought these dreams were simply reminding me that sickness is a kind of failure. I’d wake and tell myself I already had the good degree – in fact, I had several – but never with a sense of relief. It wasn’t until the dreams started to accost me during the day, waving my qualifications in their grubby fists, that I understood what they were trying to say. We know you’ve got the good degree. We know you’ve got several. But what use are they now? You can’t intellectualise yourself out of this shit-hole. Where’s your Plan B?