The first time was an accident. It was a cold, rainy Sunday toward the end of winter. Douglas had everything he wanted; there was no need to go out. He read the newspaper while he drank his coffee. He gave the kitchen and bathroom a long overdue cleaning. He had brought work home from the office and devoted an hour to reading the report of the administrative reorganisation committee and writing a response to it. Then he picked up a book and read. It wasn’t until he went to bed that he realised he had not said, had not heard, a word all day long. It had been, he decided, not a bad way to spend the day. Peaceful, unstressed. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that was his first day of silence.
The next day was a horror. The train into the city sat unmoving for half an hour between stops. No explanation was given for the delay. After five minutes had passed, a man seated two rows ahead of Douglas took out his mobile and rung his office to announce that he would arrive late for a meeting. His example catalysed the other passengers, and a wave of phone calls spread outward from him. A babble of shouted conversations soon filled the car, as each person struggled to be heard over the din. Douglas tried to bury himself in the newspaper, but the noise prevented him from concentrating.
The underground was packed by the time the train arrived, and he had to ride one stop past his usual station before he could make my way to an exit and get off. He had to rush to the office to arrive in time for an appointment with a fractious author. He needn’t have hurried. Lydia Paskings wasn’t there. When she showed up an hour late, no one had to announce her arrival. Her progress down the hall toward Douglas’s office was marked by a tirade about the stupidity of the taxi driver who had brought her from her hotel.
After complaining for the first fifteen minutes and demanding sympathy and a freshly brewed cup of coffee from the assembled staff, she turned to Douglas and asked irritably what he was going to do about his company’s ‘criminal’ refusal to arrange the author’s tour she wanted. When Douglas explained in a studiedly calm voice that the declining sales of her books made a tour infeasible, she exploded again. Douglas and the rest of the staff were treated to another outburst. It ended with her shouting that she would take her book elsewhere unless her wishes were satisfied. From somewhere down the hall came the sound of laughter, quickly muted. Douglas found it hard to keep from smiling. It has been almost too easy to manoeuvre her into making her oft-repeated threat again. ‘As you wish, Lydia. Have your agent call me. We will arrange to cancel the contract.’
She paused in mid-rant as the meaning of his words sunk in. ‘You can’t mean that. I’m one of your best-selling authors.’
‘If that is true, Lydia, then you will have no trouble finding another publisher. Allow me to have the porter find you a taxi.’ Douglas lifted the phone and buzzed the porter’s desk on the ground floor. ‘Ms Paskings is about to leave. Please ring for a taxi for her. Thank you.’ Douglas stood up and opened a cabinet. He pulled out a manuscript box and handed it to the suddenly quiet author. ‘I think you will find this in the same pristine shape in which it was delivered to us.’
Lydia Paskings suddenly found her voice. She slammed the box against Douglas’s desk. It slid onto the floor and the pages of the manuscript cascaded out. ‘I’ve made this publisher what it is today. If you think I’m going to stay here and be insulted . . .’
Douglas cut in. ‘No, under the circumstances asking you to stay would be unreasonable on my part. I’m sure that a taxi has been found for you by now.’
‘I can find my own taxi.’
‘As you wish.’
Lydia stood up. She seemed uncertain of what to do next. Douglas knelt down and gathered the loose sheets of the manuscript and stuffed them back into the box. When he handed it to her, she appeared stunned by the suddenness of the dismissal. She stared at the box as if she didn’t know what it was. After a moment, she picked up her purse and set it atop the box. ‘You are a bastard. You know that, don’t you?’ She spoke softly, as if to herself. If anything, she appeared dismayed and saddened by the realisation of this side of Douglas’s personality.
Douglas made a dismissive gesture with his hand. He wasn’t sure whether he was indicating to Lydia that she should leave or whether he was pushing away her assessment of him. She took one final look at him and then left. She hadn’t walked twenty feet before she found her voice again and started shouting. ‘If this is the way you treat authors, you soon won’t have any left. I’ll make sure that everyone learns of this outrage. All of you should start looking for jobs now. This place won’t be around much longer.’ She continued in the same vein until the lift arrived.
The lift doors had barely closed before Miles Pope, the managing director of the press, stood in the door of Douglas’s office. ‘Are we rid of her then?’ More and more often of late, he delegated the task of dealing with difficult authors to Douglas.
‘I believe so. I will call her agent. Sophie has already prepared the papers voiding the contract for the current book and arranging for the reversions of the rights to the previous books as they go out of print. I’m sure her agent and Lydia will make demands, but the matter should be settled within a week or two. She will need to find another publisher quickly. If the rumours are true, she needs the income to support herself in the style she wants.’
Behind Miles, several staff were looking out a window in the corridor overlooking the front entrance. They were pointing and giggling. Douglas heard one of them say, ‘There’s the old cow now. Pity the poor driver who picks her up.’ Another glanced around. When she saw Douglas watching them, she held her hands up and mimed applause.
Miles nodded with satisfaction. ‘Good work, Douglas. I knew we could rely on you to sort this out properly.’
‘Happy to have been of help, Miles.’
‘If you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t look particularly happy.’
To his surprise, Douglas realised that Miles’s assessment was accurate. He wasn’t happy about it at all, and even a man he thought unusually insensitive had seen that. ‘I’m becoming too good at this. I hope at least that I haven’t grown to like it. That worries me sometimes—that I am become good at being a bastard.’
A brief look of annoyance crossed Miles’s face. He did not welcome the intrusion of moral concerns into his business. If necessary, he could countenance the occasional platitude, but ethics were in his opinion best limited to unctuous utterances at the proper moment—after-dinner speeches and the like. As always when confronted by an employee acting in a way he found disagreeable, he opted for a work cure. ‘Well, we have a meeting with the design and marketing people shortly. I’ll see you there.’ He shot Douglas a brief speculative look as he left.
Douglas sighed inwardly, both because of the prospect of the meeting and because of that speculative look. Miles would be watching now for any recurrence of doubt or hesitation on Douglas’s part about playing his assigned role of hatchet man. Douglas knew that if he gave Miles much evidence of second thoughts, he risked being called in by another director and sent packing. He began gathering the files he would need for the meeting. He wasn’t looking forward to it. The meeting promised to be raucous and contentious. The heads of both departments would show up with an unnecessarily large contingent of staff from their offices. Their claques, thought Douglas. A dozen people getting absolutely nothing done while their managers wrangled over trifles.
The staff meeting was worse than Douglas had anticipated. The head of the design department and her staff seemed to view it as a forum to vent their inane complaints about being expected to actually do some work and bend their artistic sensibilities to production schedules. The marketing department rejected three-quarters of the proposed dust jackets for the fall list and complained that the mock-up for the catalogue was overdue. Miles sat at the head of the table, his elbows resting on the table and his hands steepled before his face. His eyes shifted from one speaker to the next. He appeared to be enjoying the tumult and noise. The perennial argument between the two departments was of long-standing and, in Douglas’s opinion, was approaching mortal warfare because of Miles’s reluctance to make a decision and then enforce it.
When the two department heads appealed to Miles and asked for a decision, he turned to Douglas. ‘You’re being very quiet today, Douglas. What is your opinion?’
Douglas recognised his cue. He spoke directly to Miles, as if the others were not present. ‘Sorry, Miles. My mind was elsewhere. I was thinking again about our discussion last week of outsourcing design and production work and of looking into hiring an outside marketing firm.’ Douglas did not look away from Miles, but he knew from the sudden silence in the room that he had the attention of everyone there. Douglas had in fact mentioned the possibility of eliminating the two departments only in jest, as a way to end the bickering. ‘But that is a discussion for the future. For the present, we must deal with the current problems with the current staff.’
Douglas looked around the table and found the head of the design department. ‘Philippa, I would remind you—again—that we will not remain in business if your department does not do its job.’
Philippa Henricks began to protest. ‘I cannot cope with this workload with the present staffing levels. I have spoken with you about this before and . . .’
‘Enough.’ Douglas held up his hand to stop her. ‘Your staff is adequate to do the work assigned it. It’s just needs to be better managed.’ The marketing department tried hard to suppress its smiles. The design department looked dismayed, with one exception. One of the more junior members of that group had looked up when Douglas spoke and then nodded almost imperceptibly. Douglas tried to remember his name. Robert something. ‘Now, the catalogue needs to go to the printer by the end of next week. That is an absolute deadline. I’m assigning Robert to do the design work.’ When everyone turned to look at the young man who had nodded, Douglas knew that he had at least remembered the first name correctly. ‘You’ll will be working with . . .’ Douglas glanced down the row of marketing people present. ‘with Alexis.’ He picked out another young person he knew to be ambitious and anxious to impress. ‘Both of you will report directly to Miles and myself. Stay on after the meeting and we will discuss a schedule.’
‘Now, as for the jackets for the fall season.’ Douglas reached across the table and picked up the stack of boards with the designs. He turned to Miles again and held up each board in turn. ‘This one is fine, don’t you think?’ The two of them went through the various designs, accepting most of them and rejecting a few. Miles asserted his independence by disagreeing with Douglas about one cover. Douglas deferred to him. When they finished, there were two piles on the table. Douglas indicated the pile of rejects and began apportioning the work of revising them to various members of the two departments, ignoring the heads of the two departments. He was amused to see how quickly the staff abandoned their loyalty to their supervisors in their haste to demonstrate their willingness to follow him. When he finished, he turned to Miles and waited for him to speak.
The director smiled broadly and beamed at everyone seated around the table. ‘Well, I call that a good meeting. We have accomplished quite a bit today.’ Miles stood up and headed for the door. When Philippa Henricks tried to stop him, he said, ‘Sorry, I’m late for another meeting. Talk with Douglas.’
The look that Philippa shot Douglas said that she would rather talk with an axe-wielding psychopath. Her dislike of Douglas had become hatred in the past half-hour. It had been a mistake to promote her, thought Douglas. He wondered if the events of the meeting would encourage her to resign or whether she would attempt to hang on a bit longer. It might take more to get rid of her. She could be astonishingly dense about reading between the lines and understanding what was being said to her. The head of the marketing department would, Douglas expected, be more pliable. Andrew had proved himself capable of resilience in the past. The message to him had been delivered and received. Andrew will wait a day or two, thought Douglas, and then he will drop by to have a ‘chat’.
Douglas motioned Robert and Alexis forward to the chairs next to him. He picked up the mock-up of the catalogue and bent over it. The others filed out of the room.
* * *
The day left him burdened with disgust, disgust at the people he had to deal with, disgust with his job, disgust with himself, at what he had become. His first thought upon leaving work was that the day had been crowded with noise. That thought was immediately followed by the admission to himself that he was also to blame. He had been too noisy. He had even enjoyed being noisy. He had enjoyed manoeuvring Lydia Paskings into cancelling her contract. He had enjoyed sorting Philippa out and removing the design department from her control. He enjoyed being Miles’s hatchet man. And the still, small voice at the back of his mind told him he should not have enjoyed those actions, no matter how necessary they had been. He hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time—surely there had been a time, he thought—when he would at least have tried to work with the two of them. It was as if the title of executive editor imposed a certain mode of behaviour quite apart from what he wanted to be. Words and names and titles had become tyrants that structured events and precipitated his actions. When had he let that happen? Had, he wondered, passed the point of no return? His life seemed to have escaped his control. Were his position and the status that went with it so important to him and his sense of self that he had to be what the job demanded he be?
It all came down to words. He used words the way a more physical man might use his fists, to batter and to wound. He had been trained to use words as weapons, to use them carefully to argue with implied disdain for his opponent’s intellect, to influence others with subtle deference and praise, to insult with the ironic quip. Even his pronunciation and his speech patterns immediately separated him from others and made his superior education apparent. Words were a constant invitation to misuse. He couldn’t control his use of them anymore. The wry comments escaped from his lips seemingly without thought on his part, bringing embarrassment to the target and amusement to the others. Was he capable of using words innocently again?
The quiet of his flat struck him the moment he walked through the door. The neighbourhood had little traffic at any time, but at night there was almost none. He was high enough above the street and the building solid enough that most of the noise was left far below. The front windows overlooked the park across the street. If they were open during the day, he could sometimes hear children playing there, but the park was seldom used at night, at least not by those who wished to draw attention to themselves by being noisy. He had bought it after the divorce, surrendering the flat in which he had lived with Anne to her. He had brought only his clothes and books and personal belongings with him. All the furnishings had been new. He had intended to make it warm and inviting, but when confronted by a plethora of possibilities, he had opted to buy the first pieces of furniture that he found acceptable, a three-piece suite upholstered in an unobjectionably bland fabric. He had bought the hooks and wire necessary to hang his pictures but stopped after placing one above the fireplace. The others remained stacked behind the sofa with their faces to the wall. At first he had invited people over for drinks or simple dinners, but gradually he had abandoned even that effort. He now socialised elsewhere, meeting his acquaintances and business associates in pubs or restaurants or in their homes.
Douglas liked it that way. The flat was his sanctuary. Its lack of claims on him and its sterile stillness, its palpable chill, were tonics to the office and the world outside. Nothing intruded on him here, nothing demanded that he be this rather than that. At the office he was what it required him to be. With his sister and her family, he was the good brother and, if generous gifts of money on the customary occasions counted, a good uncle to her children. With his neighbours, he was, as they were, careful to observe the boundary between friendliness and intrusiveness. With those with whom he socialised, he tried to be intelligent and witty, not with charm. But in his flat, he was free to be silent, to abandon the masks he wove from words.
Words were his only skill, and he was good with them. Words provided his living, and his colleagues and the authors he published relied on him to provide the words they needed. Sometimes words seemed the only thing left to him. He had once calculated that he was personally responsible for publishing close to three million words a year. He figured that indirectly he added another two million. Speech added another several hundred thousand. There were so many words in his mind. Fragments, groups of four or five words, would drift unbidden into his thoughts. He didn’t know why they arose. He seldom could trace a connection between his present and the words from his past. He would be working at his desk, reading a sales report or writing a memo, and suddenly he would experience a phrase like ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’.
Some mental quirk made his mind a random thicket of words in a dozen languages. And it had become worse as he had grown older. There seemed to be a bin labelled ‘foreign languages’ in his mind into which words from all the languages he had studied had been dumped. When he spoke French, he might insert a German equivalent in the middle of the sentence. Sometimes he felt that he hated all language.
His friends and colleagues treated his inability to forget as a parlour trick. His mind had become a reference work to be mined as a wonder or a resource. ‘Ask Douglas,’ they would say. ‘He’ll know the quote.’ And he did. He always did.
Words. Was it possible, he wondered, to live without words? Even the thought of doing so had to be framed in words. If one thought about being conscious, consciousness returned, in words. But was it possible to be conscious without words?
* * *
‘I don’t understand, Douglas.’ Miles lifted the letter from his desk and stared at it as if he expected it to speak to him.
‘I am resigning, Miles. As of May 30th.’
‘But why? You give no reason. Have you found a position with another publisher? Is it the money? We will better any offer you have been made.’
‘No, there has been no other offer. I am simply resigning. I plan to take a year off, and then I shall re-evaluate whether I wish to work again. A gap year, as it were.’
‘Gap years are for children, Douglas. People your age don’t take them. That’s ridiculous. If you need a leave of absence for, say, two months, I’m sure we can arrange that.’
Miles waved the resignation letter about helplessly. Douglas suddenly realised that Miles literally did not know what to do. This was the sort of task that he or someone else handled for Miles, and Miles had no idea of the steps he needed to take. ‘I will make all the arrangements with personnel, Miles. All the paperwork, that sort of thing. If I might make a suggestion, I think that Eleanor Williams is ready to take on more responsibilities. But it might be a good idea to separate out my financial oversight tasks and transfer those to Adrianna.’
As he had discovered in the past in dealing with Miles and had had so many occasions to practice, it was best to act as if the decision had been made and to focus Miles’s attention on the details of carrying it out. Miles wasn’t happy about losing his services, but he soon accepted that as a fact.
At the end of the discussion, Miles returned to the basic question. ‘But what will you do?’
Douglas had thought long about how he would answer that question. It was inevitable that people would be curious and want to know what he proposed to do during the year. But he was reluctant to tell them the truth, both because he knew that they would find it incomprehensible and try to argue him out of his decision and because he felt that his chosen course would remain his own possession if he kept it hidden. It would also be easier to follow it if no one knew what his intentions were. So he lied. ‘I’m going to travel. There are many places I’ve long wanted to see. But I don’t want to tie myself down to a schedule. If I find a place I like, I may decide to stay there for a month or two before moving on.’
His story was successful. At the farewell party on his last day at work, he was given a set of luggage and several items advertised as useful to travellers. His sister recommended some places that she and her husband had enjoyed.
* * *
In May, Douglas spent his evenings and weekends preparing. He boxed his books and CDs and stored them, along with the CD player, the television, and the radio, as well as all the other noise-making and word-generating gadgets he owned, in the storage space in the basement assigned to his unit. He arranged with an accounting service to pay his monthly bills and for the telephone service to be suspended. He stripped his flat of everything but the essentials he needed. The evening of his last work day, he answered all the emails in his personal email account and then turned the computer off and carried it to the basement. It would remain off for the next year.
He returned to the lounge, turned on the one remaining lamp, and reread the memo he had written himself a final time. For at least the next year, he would reduce his contacts with words to a minimum. He would not initiate a conversation with anyone. He had thought about vowing not to speak at all but then decided that if the building manager came to the door and asked if he had a leak in the ceiling, he could hardly refuse to answer. And if he needed to visit a doctor, it might prove difficult to mime his symptoms. But he would keep speech to a minimum. Some trials runs and experiments had revealed that it was easier to say nothing in larger stores than in smaller ones. The workers in smaller shops interacted more with customers, but in large stores nothing more than a smile and a nod were required.
Nor would he intentionally listen to others speaking. Of course, he would hear others speaking on the street or in shops but he would not seek out sound of any kind.
And he would neither write nor read anything. He had removed all written materials from his flat. The only words that remained were the names on the appliances or the writing on food packages and the like. Covering those over would serve only to draw attention to them. He thought he could be disciplined enough to avoid all but the most cursory of contacts with the remaining words in his flat. When he finished reading the memo, he folded it and threw it in the bin.
He was ready to begin his search for silence, for wordlessness.
* * *
Douglas quickly fell into a routine. He awoke early, between three and four he thought, and then went for a walk as soon as it became light enough to see. His route took about two hours to walk. He intentionally chose quiet streets. He seldom saw more than a few early morning joggers or people leaving for work. When he returned to his flat, he made a simple breakfast for himself. Then he sat in the lounge until late afternoon, when he ate his second meal of the day. After he had washed and put away the dishes, he resumed sitting until he went to bed around eight. He kept the drapes on all the windows closed and never turned on a light.
Words proved more difficult to exclude from his mind than he had expected, however. He would be out walking and glance in a shop window and see words. Every street corner had a sign. Every car and van carried a name. Words were everywhere. They were scrawled in the most unlikely places. Even in the park there were signs directing one to exits or to the children’s play area. He hadn’t noticed before how ubiquitous they were until he consciously tried to eliminate them from his life. Everything had a label, as if it would not exist if its name were not acknowledged in writing, as if we could not identify a loaf of bread unless its packaging stressed what it contained.
There was also, Douglas found, an extraordinary amount of speech on the street, even during his early morning walks. The quiet of a suburban street would be interrupted by the sound of the early morning news on a radio or television coming through an open window. Van drivers making deliveries to the shops or joggers rushing past him chattered into their phones. Even the earplugs he bought did not keep all sound out.
His days were filled with thought. He even thought about not thinking. Emptying his mind of words seemed an impossible task, the more so as he intentionally tried to do so. He tried staring at the wall and making his mind as blank as it, but the colour reminded him of the flat he had shared with Anne and that started a chain of thoughts about her and their marriage and the reasons for its failure. He tried occupying his days with simple repetitive tasks such as cleaning but found himself compulsively reading the instructions on the bottle of cleansing liquid.
He was more successful at carrying out his vow not to speak, but even in that area he found himself uttering a few words each week. Another early morning walker might nod at him and say ‘good morning’ as they passed, and without thinking Douglas would return the greeting. An assistant in a store would ask if Douglas had found everything he wanted and he would reply ‘yes’. Or a neighbour would stop him as he entered the building and comment on the weather. Douglas could hardly refuse to speak without making an issue of not speaking, which would defeat his project of rendering words irrelevant to his life.
His frustration with words intensified as he struggled to do without them. It was as if the words were fighting back, overwhelming him with their insistent immediacy, their indispensability, their ability to organise raw experience into chains of ideas, to structure chaotic reality to meet their nature. He began to dread each day with its new torments, the cacophony of sound and meaning that invaded his life as soon as he awoke. But he found no haven in sleep. His dreams grew to taunt him with words. He dreamt of vocabulary lessons, of words on chalkboards, books, manuscripts, memos, letters, shopping lists, notices in the tube stations, signs in windows, lectures, plays, movies, television programmes, newsreaders, presenters, art galleries filled with pictures of words, words painted on hoardings and pavements and the sides of buses, words interjecting themselves into his consciousness from signs, food tins, stray bits of refuse on the street. No matter where he turned, no matter where he looked, words attacked him.
He attempt to avoid words developed into a mania. He began to plot how to keep away from them. He put off shopping for food because the stores were masses of words. He took to rushing into the grocery store and quickly buying only items he could decant from the packages and store in plastic bags and glass jars. As autumn arrived and the days shortened, he began taking his walks in the dark. He kept his head down. He wore earplugs to exclude the noise. He cut the labels out of his clothes.
The breakthrough came unexpectedly. He wasn’t even aware of it until it was over. One day he suddenly realised that it grown dark while he was sitting in his chair. He hadn’t been conscious of it. The previous memory was of finishing the washing up from breakfast and stowing the dishes away. He didn’t even remember walking into the lounge and sitting down. But he had to have done so several hours before. He couldn’t call to mind a thing, a word, he had thought of during the interim.
Thereafter he found it easier to lose himself. At first he could do so only in his flat. But he soon learned to enter the blankness even while walking. Words and thoughts ceased to assault his consciousness. Objects, situations, presented themselves, and he dealt with them appropriately, but without words.
Douglas even found that he could choose to think in words, or not. He could choose to hear them, or not. He could choose to be conscious of them, or not. And when he opted to be in words, the words grew richer and more laden with significance. It was as if he came to them afresh each time and uncovered new wonders in them.
Words had lost their power, and he was gaining control over them. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ the evangelist claimed. And there were as many beginnings as there were words. He could combine them in new ways, create new universes with them, each with a logic determined by the single originating word. Everything was possible. He had become the being whose word engenders a world.
Later, it would occur to him that he was becoming insane, at least what the world thought of as insane. The thought amused him. The belief that he had been liberated from words and had gained mastery over them would be seen as a delusion, the raving of an mad man.
* * *
Douglas was only vaguely aware of the others at first. When he had first started the regimen of early morning walks, the park across the street from the building that housed his flat was deserted. At most there might be someone walking a dog or hurrying along the path toward the train station. When he thought about it later, it occurred to him that the gatherings had to have started with one person, but he was never sure. Perhaps there had always been a group since the beginning. One day as he left the building, he glanced across the street, and there on the two benches directly opposite sat four people. Behind them stood another half-dozen people. It was hard to tell in the half-light but all of them appeared to be watching him. Thereafter, they were always people waiting in the park when he emerged from the building. The number varied but grew slowly over time. Other than watching him, they did nothing. They were still there when he returned from his walk.
He took to pulling the curtain in the lounge aside and peeking out. His return seemed to be a signal for them to begin leaving. Within half an hour after his return, their numbers had noticeably dwindled, but two or three of them always remained. No matter when he checked, there was always someone sitting there quietly and watching his building.
Then there were the flowers. At first there had been only the occasional solitary flower on the pavement outside his building. Just a flower on the pavement close to the kerb. It might well have been dropped by a passerby. But they grew more frequent and more numerous as the days went by. Within a few weeks a pile of flowers greeted him every morning. Not just a flower or two, but bunches of them, some of them still surrounded by clear cellophane wrap from the florist’s shop.
A young woman was the first to approach him. She was standing outside the entrance to his building. There was nothing to distinguish her from thousands of other people her age. She wore jeans and a short jacket. A small haversack dangled from one shoulder. When Douglas returned from his daily walk, she stepped forward and held out a rose to him. When he hesitated to take it, she pressed her palms together, with the rose held between them, in the South Asian gesture of greeting and then bowed slightly. She again presented the rose to Douglas, who took it. She smiled and then bowed again, backing away a step or two. Neither of them spoke.
A piece of paper had been folded around the stem of the rose. The young woman pointed to it to draw Douglas’s attention to it. He opened it, expecting to see a message. But the paper was blank. It held no words. Douglas smiled at the woman. He had been understood. He moved his right hand in an arc through the air. It simply felt the right thing for him to do, as if he were blessing the gift-giver.
That action set a precedent. The flower-givers multiplied. Soon he was greeted each morning by a dozen people bearing flowers. He took to gathering the flowers together and then placing them on the pavement before making the blessing gesture. One day a young man drew his attention to the crowd of people standing in the park, and Douglas crossed the street, followed by the group that had been waiting outside the entrance to his building. The crowd parted as he neared, forming a pathway to one of the park benches. Douglas walked through the crowd, closely observed by a hundred people.
He sat down and motioned to the others to join him. Slowly at first, those nearest him began to sit as they understood his meaning. Soon only a few people were standing. A woman walking her dog outside the circle looked at them with curiosity. The dog lifted its nose and sniffed at the unexpected crowd of people who had lowered themselves to its level. Douglas closed his eyes and emptied his mind of words and sounds. He formed a picture of the crowd in his mind and projected a wave of wordlessness outward from himself. He sensed all sound within the radius of his thought ceasing.
That first day, Douglas sat motionless and silent for close to an hour. When he opened his eyes, he found that the size of the crowd had increased. Many of them looked stunned and shaken. When Douglas stood, so did the others. They began to close in around him. The young man who had earlier indicated those waiting in the park was one of those seated nearest Douglas. He positioned himself in front of Douglas and motioned to others nearby to help him clear a path through the crowd. They formed a cordon around Douglas. When someone reached out a hand to touch Douglas, one of his protectors interposed himself between Douglas and the person. Anyone attempting to speak to Douglas was motioned to remain quiet. The crowd followed Douglas across the street. When the parade reaching the entrance to his building, the young man held the door open for Douglas. When Douglas was inside, he turned to the crowd and said, ‘He will return tomorrow. Please join us then. Please allow him to rest now. Please respect his desire for quiet.’
The next morning the young man and four other young men stood outside the entrance to the building waiting for Douglas. They wore identical outfits—a black jumper over a white shirt, black trousers, black trainers. The neck and cuffs of the shirt extended beyond the jumper, forming a white band at neck and wrist. As Douglas turned to the left to follow the usual route of his morning walk, they silently took up places behind him. At the end of the walk, they escorted him across the street to the park. He sat on the same bench as on the previous day and repeated the period of silence. That became the daily routine.
As Douglas became used to the routine, he paid less attention to it. He was aware that the throng of observers in the park was growing and spilling onto the street. He knew that some in the crowd took pictures of him or videotaped him. He was conscious that things happened around him, but awareness carried no necessity to act. Events had ceased to be of much importance to him. He emerged each morning, took a walk, and then sat in the park for a time. If it was raining, someone held an umbrella over his head. Then he spent the rest of the day sitting in his flat.
The young man followed him into the flat one day. A short time later, a cup of tea appeared on the table beside Douglas’s chair. He drank it. He hadn’t made tea for himself for several weeks. He had forgotten how much he liked it. Later he found food on the table. He ate that. He thought it might be the first food he had eaten for several days. The young man stayed until it became dark outside. He spent most of the day sitting quietly behind Douglas. That, too, quickly became part of the day’s routine.
No one spoke to Douglas. His silence was respected. Anyone who felt a need to communicate spoke to the young man, who answered in laconic whispers. His presence relieved Douglas of any necessity of speech or thought or willed action. The young man simply took care of the necessities, and Douglas no longer had to deal with them. Without thinking about it, he became dependent on the young man and let him make more and more decisions. It wasn’t so much that the young man learned to anticipate Douglas’s needs as that he gradually grew to determine them.
The crowds gathered in the park soon drew the attention of the media, the neighbours, and the police. The young man dealt with them all. He gave interviews to the media and arranged for them to interview the more articulate members of the daily gatherings. When the neighbours objected that the crowds were disrupting traffic and creating problems and complained to the police, he collected donations from Douglas’s followers and rented an old church and scheduled meetings to be held there. Douglas hardly noticed the change in surroundings. The young man and his inner circle of guards simply led Douglas to the church rather than to the park. There he sat on a chair on the raised dais at the front of the sanctuary.
The church could not accommodate as many people as the park, however. So the young man scheduled several ‘sittings’ each day. When each ended, he led Douglas to the room that had once served as the vestry. Douglas sat there until someone came again to lead him back to the sanctuary for the next sitting. He was not returned to his flat until after the last sitting ended around 10:00 pm.
The movement grew rapidly, and the young man soon found it necessary to hire other workers to deal with the finances and assist with the organisation. Douglas’s followers wanted to talk about their experience of silence, and he had to set up discussion groups. Others wanted assistance with their devotions. At first he counselled them himself, but these sessions proved so popular that he had to train other counsellors to help him deal with the increasing numbers of people wanting attention.
There was also the problem of the desire for more personal contact with Douglas. The devout wanted more direct access to Douglas than the sittings allowed. The young man instituted a system of allowing those who had proven their worth with constant attendance and generous donations to sit in the vestry with Douglas. They were, of course, schooled not to speak. They simply sat there for a few minutes and shared Douglas’s silence.
Soon, however, there wasn’t enough time for personal sittings for all those desiring them. Moreover, congregations had formed in other cities. There was even talk of overseas branches. All of them clamoured for Douglas. Unless Douglas could be cloned, the movement would be in danger of atrophying because of the sage’s limitations. An experiment with videotaping sittings for later viewing served only to whet the desire for personal contact. Pictures weren’t worth a thousand silences.
One morning when Douglas awoke, his first thought was, ‘It’s June 1st. It’s been a year since I took the vow of silence.’ He did not know how he knew the date, but he knew that he was right about it. His gap year was over. On the whole he felt it had been a successful experiment. He had done no one a harm by being silent, and he had regained control over his own life. The question was what to do next. He needed to think about that. A glance in the mirror over the bathroom sink told him that he also needed a shave and a haircut. When had he grown a beard and let his hair get that untidy?
While he was shaving, he heard a key in the door to his flat, followed by the sound of the door opening and closing and then sandals flapping against the floor and a kettle being filled in the kitchen. He stopped in alarm, the razor poised to stroke upward under his chin. The filling of the kettle impressed him as an unusual act for an intruder. Surely no thief would stop to make tea, and in any case there was nothing left to steal in the flat. He had stored everything of value before beginning the year of silence. The refrigerator was opened and closed and there came the chink of a dishes being laid on the counter and items being taken from drawers and cupboards. The sequence of actions betokened a routine and familiarity with his flat. Obviously sometime during the year, someone had begun to help him. He wondered what other surprises awaited him.
Douglas walked quietly down the hall and looked into the kitchen. A young man was slicing a loaf of bread, the knife gliding quickly downward with little effort. Douglas vaguely recognised him as someone he had seen before and knew that for several months at least this young man had made his breakfast. He could not, however, recall why. The young man smiled at him, pointed to the teapot, and then pointed to his watch and held up five fingers, apparently indicating that it would take about five minutes for the tea to brew. Douglas could not understand why he was miming. ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.’
The young man looked startled. He turned around and stammered, ‘My name’s Geoff, Geoff Harkness.’
Douglas realised suddenly that the young man had never heard him speak before. Other memories flooded his mind. The young man had been his caretaker for almost six months now, almost his manager. In a rush of embarrassment, his first thought was the amount of work he had caused Geoff. ‘I seem to have put you to a lot of bother. I do apologise. It was never my intent that others assist me in my efforts. I thank you for helping me, but I couldn’t accept more of your time.’
‘It hasn’t been a bother. It’s been a privilege. It’s my life now—to help others understand your message, I mean.’ The young man stared at Douglas with dismay. ‘You’ve shaved your beard off.’
‘Yes, I need to have my hair cut as well. I’ll do that this morning.’
‘But there’s no time. The first silent sitting is scheduled for eight o’clock. Then you have appointments all morning until the noon sitting. In any case, people expect you to have a beard and long hair. They won’t recognise you without them.’
‘I’ll talk to them and explain. I don’t like my hair this long. I’ve never worn it like this. It feels dirty.’
‘No, you mustn’t talk. That would ruin everything.’ The young man stepped closer to Douglas. ‘People don’t want you to talk. That’s where your power comes from. That you don’t talk.’
‘You don’t need to raise your voice. I can hear you perfectly. In any case, it is my decision. I decided to take a year’s break. The year is now up. I wish to resume my previous life. That includes getting a haircut. And I will put a stop to these ridiculous sittings or whatever they are. And do stop waving that knife about.’
‘But you can’t. What about all our hard work? What about all the people who believe in you and have benefitted from your example? We’re in the midst of a fund-raising drive. A new temple is opening in Manchester next week, and you’re to be there.’
‘I have no intention of participating further in this charade. Now I must ask you to leave.’
‘I won’t let you do this.’
‘I don’t see how you can stop me short of murdering me.’
* * *
At the first sitting that morning, the young man announced that Douglas had entered a period of prolonged silence, a retreat apart from others so that he could renew himself. He would return at a later time with even greater powers. The announcement was greeted with respectful disappointment. Two acolytes reverently placed a large portrait of Douglas on the altar. The young man led the congregation in the silent sitting and contemplation of the meaning of Douglas’s silence. Several participants later said that Douglas had been even more of a presence in his absence.
At the end of the sitting, the young man made a second announcement. Since Douglas recognised that others needed his help, he had prepared a book and a CD. The book would be available shortly in both cloth and paperback editions, and as an e-book. Both proved to be popular items. Most of the faithful bought at least one of each. Many bought several copies so that they would always have one available no matter where they were. The sales funded the expansion of the church.
The cover of the book consisted of a picture of David sitting with his eyes closed and his head bowed. The only other element on the cover was the barcode for the ISBN number and the price on the back. The interior consisted of 320 blank pages. A deluxe edition was available, featuring a faux leather cover and heavy cream-coloured paper. The CD contained 50 minutes of silence. Excerpts from it quickly joined the list of popular YouTube files.