I lost my voice for a few days recently. I found it frustrating, not being able to express myself freely, not being heard, resorting to writing notes to be understood. Growing up in a large family, I learned to talk loudly, but that some things must not be spoken about at all, either inside or outside the home. There were elephants all over the house, not just in one room, but they must be ignored, drowned out by noise.
My mother could not bear the thoughts in her head, so she masked them with radio and television, all day long. The radio in the kitchen always seemed slightly off station and too loud, the companion to cooking and cleaning. The television was on from lunchtime onwards – Pebble Mill at One, Crown Court, Good Afternoon with Mavis Nicholson. I watched them, too, when I came home for lunch, watched them with Mum, or on my own if she was out. The radio was on again when Mum prepared the dinner, then back to the screen: Crossroads, Emmerdale Farm, Coronation Street, right through to end of programmes, in the days before twenty-four hour TV. Mum would fall asleep to whatever she was watching, but if one of her children dared to switch channel, she would suddenly wake. ‘I was watching, that,’ she’d say. ‘Turn it back,’ as she was in charge of our viewing, declaring any programme she didn’t like: ‘Rubbish,’ or ‘Pure rubbish.’
I, too, used to have noise wherever I was, radios throughout the house switched on whenever I entered the room, even if for a few minutes. Perhaps I wanted to drown out my thoughts, too. Having grown up with doing homework in the corner of a room where television was blaring, people talking or arguing, I had to get used to it. There was no private space, no study space, in a small house with seven people living in it. No silence. I was reminded of this when I was sent a photo of the doorstep of my late brother’s house, after someone kindly laid flowers on my behalf on the anniversary of his death. The steps and the two low walls that flank it have been painted black, but the once-glossy red of the bricks was showing through; the colour of those steps when I lived in that house from the age of four to when I left home, a week after my nineteenth birthday.
I took my O-Levels in the hot summer of 1976, and spent many hours revising on those front steps, early in the day. Dad would get up early for work, and put the radio on as he made his sandwiches and drank his tea. The radio was loud, but it didn’t wake anyone but me. I would lie in bed until I heard Uncle Bill’s van pull up outside and the front door close as Dad left. Then up with my books to sit on the front doorstep in the relative cool of the morning, the house quiet, making notes on notes, condensing my learning into one paragraph that would trigger an entire essay in the exams. It was the only time I spent in silence while I lived in that house.
This month marks sixty years since my family of birth moved into that house, and it is just over a year since the last McCarthy to live in it left this world. The house has been silent for a year, just the ghosts of all of us humans that lived in it pass through; the spirits of the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, white mice, hamsters and goldfish, too. Scenes and memories pass through my head unbidden. The last time I visited, it was all too much to bear. I said I would not go again, and handed back the keys; the only time I had ever held keys to that house. There was no need when I was young, when there was always someone home, when the back door was left unlocked. I now find I want to visit again, to sit on those steps, to remember some of the good times as well as the bad, to bring things to a close, but my requests are met with silence, as if I have no place, having left, having broken silence on some things that others would rather remain unspoken.
I can no longer cope with noise all the time. I cannot read and listen to the radio, I cannot write while the television is on, I cannot concentrate when there are voices around me. Silence is my friend these days, even though it lets the thoughts in that I would rather not entertain.