The Sound of Sheer Silence

by Amanda Higgin

Xanda and I, reluctantly and rushed by timetables, exchange our goodbyes a few times in between final parting witticisms.

I really do have to go!’ She laughs, ‘Bye!’, and with a click of her mouse and a low bee-doop Xanda disappears from my laptop screen.

I lean back in my chair, still chuckling to myself at the end of the conversation. We had been lamenting the woes of the backstage crew: all the work, none of the glory. Invisible at the curtain call except for an extended hand to the wings, if the actors remember.

My laptop shuts down with a synthetic sigh which I think is supposed to sound like it’s going to sleep, but always makes me feel like it’s disappointed in me. After over an hour of conversation, my room is suddenly silent.

But it’s not, of course, once I tune into the noise. My window is cracked open, filling my room with the rush of the High Street traffic, which ebbs and swells as taxis, buses and vans pass by. The soothing undercurrent of sound is the accompaniment to Oriel Street itself: a couple of maintenance guys are chatting, then there’s a piercing beep and ke-chunk as they open the Third Quad gate. A group of friends pass by, laughing, and decide to stop by their friend’s first floor window to yell up to her. She’s doing her hair. She’ll let them in in a moment.

Here’s a PSA: sound carries on Oriel Street like you would not believe. I can hear you.

I get up to close my window, which judders down to a thud, shaking the frame. As the group outside moves on, I draw the curtains against the fading light. The noise of the traffic suddenly disappears, and my room is silent.

But it’s not, of course. After a couple of moments my ears tune into the sound of the traffic again, now softened through the walls. The floor creaks as I move back to my desk. Suddenly my upstairs neighbour must have gotten up from her chair, because there is a series of loud, creaking thuds which move across my ceiling. The sound always conjures in my head an image of wooden floorboards bending, and a contingent worry about the ceilings in this antique staircase.

The footsteps eventually stop as my neighbour returns to her desk. My room is so close to silent. The rush of the traffic outside is dull, almost imperceptible if I don’t listen to it. My fridge, a sound I didn’t even realise I could hear, gives a final rattle and turns off the cooling cycle. My breathing, soft and regular, slowly comes to my attention.

For a moment, I hold my breath and put my fingers in my ears.

The sound of my breathing, of the traffic, of the people outside, of the other people in my staircase, of the world’s ambient noise, disappears. All I can hear now is a high, whistling whine, very much like the sound of static made by an old television.

I have tinnitus. It’s a fairly common condition, and I don’t have it half as badly as many people. Tinnitus is that sound you can’t not hear when you leave a loud concert hall or a nightclub. I have that all the time. According to the ENT department, it’s the sound of my nervous system, which is almost cool. Most people tune it out naturally, but I don’t any more. I used to.

I miss silence. I miss being able to listen to nothing. I miss being able to tune into the sound of stillness, of peace, of an absence of obligation. I’ve learned to deal with it, but it was difficult in the beginning. I used to listen to silence as a coping mechanism.

I’ve learned other ways to listen to silence. Sometimes I sit and listen to my tinnitus, but not often; it quickly stops being relaxing. It’s easy to find silence in chapel before Compline; despite the creaking of the benches and the rustling of the shifting congregation, there is a pervasive peace to the sound that isn’t there. Nobody’s saying anything. None of the sounds demand to be listened to. Call me an obsessed rower, but the moment of stillness between strokes is pure silence as eight of us simultaneously exhale. On those rare days (mainly during the vacation) when I wake up naturally, the first moment of consciousness is pure silence, before even thoughts start making noise.

There is good silence and bad silence. Good silence is peaceful, still, relaxing. It’s when the sound of traffic disappears as you go into Third Quad. It’s the smile to your friend across the dining hall as you wait to start collections. It’s the moment after submitting a difficult essay.

Bad silence is the absence of needed sound. It’s when your friends are obviously upset but won’t talk. It’s when the voice in your head shuts up at the moment you have to give a reply. It’s when you press play on your phone and get an error message instead of music.

I have a strange conception of silence, because it isn’t real for me anymore. I find silence where I can, every now and again tuning into the still absence of a certain kind of sound. The best silence isn’t anything to do with sound; it’s when the constant rush of thoughts in my head, most of which are obligations, tasks and appointments, stops its turbulence and is still. I used to like listening to silence, and I still try to find it. Even though it’s impossible, I do.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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