I’m not sure why this one’s been sticking in my head today, but it has. Perhaps it’s the wind, howling outside with the sun shining down through an unrelenting blue sky, that’s jogging my memory…
Some years ago, Rhys and I faced a dilemma – how to get his job to recognise that he had a family, and was supporting one, as opposed to being a single man with no financial responsibilities. After much research, Rhys found the answer: to be recognised as a de-facto relationship, a legal definition in Australia which is similar to ‘common-law spouse’, I guess. For this to happen, we had to live together, as a household, with shared finances and living arrangements, for more than six months. It just so happened that at the time, Rhys had been assigned a three-bedroom residence in Sydney. It took some time to decide on logistics, but the time period we finally worked out was bad for our eldest to come and stay with us as she was attending school (and she wouldn’t be able to attend school in Australia for that period of time.) So for a short while, I lived in Sydney with Rhys, and our then youngest, Vincent, who was three years old at the time.
Probably one of the biggest differences between Australia and anywhere else I’ve ever lived is how quiet it is. Where I lived in the Philippines is considered urban suburbia, given that it’s a gated subdivision, but despite the amount of space we have there, despite the fact that we had chickens, a mango tree, and a menagerie of pets, the undeniable presence of people was always there – the sound of the people across the street working with metal; someone listening to the radio from the block of houses behind our home; the basketball court and its’ ever-present loudspeaker and blaring horn and the people playing there, no matter what time of day or night it was; the sound of people talking, even if you couldn’t (always) make out the words; children playing in the street, their mothers chatting while they kept an eye on the kids.
The suburb where we stayed then was quiet – it was a time when school holidays were happening, so the school we could see from our bedroom window wasn’t open, and nobody played on the school playground. The house, being a place where Rhys really only was in when he came home from work, was pretty spare, though he had furnished the bedrooms – all three, in anticipation of having two children and a missus in residence. Weekends was spent on the computer as we were in a long distance relationship and that was the time he could Skype and see us. There was a table he’d gotten as a hand-me-down from his parents, lovely solid wood, and a set of couches bought from another serviceman who was moving to a new posting, and a small TV someone had given him because that other person had gotten a new one.
The kitchen was more or less what you’d expect from a man living all by himself. A small pot, and maybe two frying pans, some dishes to eat from, a few mugs. The week we came over was an off-pay week, so he’d barely had enough for himself – cereal, and sandwiches usually, tided Rhys over. But he had ration packs, left over from exercises and such, and until the pay came in so we could do some grocery shopping at the stores just down the road, that’s what I had to work with, to make meals for my man and son. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we managed to stretch those ration packs that was meant to be a full day’s meal for one, into two meals – Brunches for myself and Vincent, and dinners for three; feeding them was my highest priority.
It was the time between making meals that took the longest; I could have all the housework done in the morning (Except laundry; I couldn’t do laundry. I couldn’t reach the clothesline, I was far too short! Laundry had to wait until the weekends for us to generate enough clothes to warrant a washing) and then there would be the long day to wait through until Rhys got home. But until then, it was quiet quiet quiet. Vincent was excited to have a room of his own, a bed of his own, but that was fine… at night. The few toys he had to play with soon bored him, and while he would gamely help with chores (putting away the dishes, sweeping the front with a handheld dustpan and brush, lining up the shoes) that’d all be done before midday and even reading out loud to him became dull …
…because of the unrelenting silence that pressed in on us. Playing music didn’t help for long; there was a need to hear the sound of living humans, not a recording. The TV didn’t help either and the daytime drama shows weren’t really something I wanted to endure. I could escape sometimes, for a little while chatting online to friends or on the livejournal I had then, while Vincent had his afternoon nap but that wasn’t something I could use all the time.
Vincent asked if there were any other people living here in Australia one day, and I had to tell him that there were, but the reason why we didn’t see anyone was because they would leave for work early in the day and not return until later that night, after he was in bed.The bigness of the house, which was probably as big as our home in the Philippines, but only had us, was unsettling. Some days he would even cry, so unnerved he was by the quiet and bigness of everything around him.
I’d take him outside to play in the big grassy oval in front of the house, but though he’d tire of running and chasing the pink and gray galahs, he wasn’t used to such a large open space and would soon rush back to me, unnerved, even as I was, by the seemingly bottomless blue sky, and the seeming total absence of the presence of people. We would hear nothing but the wind whistling through tree branches, and the sounds of birds.
But the sound of wind and birds was preferable to the sometimes total stillness that neither of us were used to. Even when we’d gotten more food and cookware, and clothes that suited the weather, after all the day’s chores were done Vincent and I would sometimes just sit on the floor, quietly gazing out the window, finding ourselves whispering because the silence would press in on our senses. Vincent and I developed a touch of agoraphobia for a while, and it would only lift when Rhys got home. He’d sometimes find us curled up together, under a fluffy blanket, when he’d get home. It baffled him when I tried to explain about how unsettling the quiet and sense of being completely and totally alone was, how small we felt, even though logically we knew that nothing could hurt us and that we were safe in the house.
Then one afternoon, while helping me fold and put away clothes, Vincent made the discovery that the carpeted bottom of the built-in wardrobe made for a comfortable bed. To prove it he went and got his pillow, his blanket and stuffed tiger from his room, and arranged them at the bottom of the wardrobe. He could pull the sliding door mostly shut and peek at me, giggling, from the inside.
“It’s not so scary in here,” Vincent told me. Somehow, climbing into the closet was soothing – because it was a smaller, enclosed space. When I had finished putting away clothes he convinced me to join him in there, because he was sure we’d fit and it would be nice to cuddle.
So I stretched out next to him and wrapped Vincent up in my arms. It was much nicer in there; not so scary and quiet or big, for some odd reason. I tugged the closet door mostly closed, intending to get up again once Vincent fell asleep, imagining myself greeting Rhys when he came home and showing him our son asleep in the closet, snug and safe.
Instead, soothed by the odd relief of that enclosed space, I fell asleep with Vincent cuddled up with me. I fell so deeply asleep, in fact, that I didn’t hear Rhys come home.
Rhys tells me that he came home to a completely empty house. We weren’t in the kitchen, or dining room, or back yard or any of the bedrooms, so he went out to see if we were in the oval, playing in the grass. When he saw the big grass oval was empty, he went back inside, wondering where we had gone, but our shoes were still in the house, so we hadn’t left.
For some reason, he felt an urge to look in the closet, and he just couldn’t understand why he had that urge. “That can’t be,” he told me he was thinking then. “Why would she want to do that?” But that’s exactly where he found us, fast asleep in the closet floor. And that’s how I woke, to his baffled expression. I slipped out of the closet so I wouldn’t wake Vincent and explained to Rhys why we’d fallen asleep in there.
Later that night, while we lay in bed together, Rhys recounted how he once came home a week after visiting me, before Vincent was born, from his job at the petrol station, before he’d enlisted. His parents live in a big old farm house and the place is probably three, four times as big as the house we were in. And the house is in the middle of an area that’s all vinyards and fruit orchards and fields! For some reason he walked through the door and said, “I’m home!” even though he knew there was nobody home yet. The echoing silence cut at him, he remembered, and moments later he had the computer on to see if I was online. I wasn’t, so he called me, just so he wouldn’t feel so alone.
Interestingly enough, after that we did not need to climb into the closet to feel soothed. It’s almost like knowing that it was there broke the odd oppressive bigness and silence of the house, and other than to nap there a few times because it was snug and novel, Vincent didn’t use the closet any more. A few days after that, school started up again and we started seeing lots of people. It helped a lot, and the sense of utter isolation we had had then vanished. It helped too that I grew used to walking larger distances after a while, and was able to take Vincent to the park and playground, where he could play with other little children.
Then one day Vincent said he didn’t need to sleep in the closet any more, and would sleep in the bed for his nap. “It’s not so scary to have a big room any more,” he told me. And the house, despite not being any quieter or noisier than before, wasn’t as unnerving as it had been.
When we went back to the Philippines after that, I tried to describe to my mother that silence, that stillness, and it was difficult for her to imagine it.