A World of Eternal Silence

Alistair Rey

The Cheswick School for the Deaf is situated at the intersection of Croydon and Black Friars Road. To reach the front entrance you have to walk through a narrow stone passageway that opens onto a garden courtyard. The sound of violins and flutes is the first thing you notice emerging from the passage. You may be excused for initially wondering whether the symphonic ensemble is intended for your arrival. However, a quick glance to the right will dispel you of any such notions. The gilded plaque on the building directly opposite the Cheswick School reads Latraud Institute of Music. The two buildings, separated by a shared courtyard, are virtually identical, one a school for the deaf, and the other a music conservatory.

Isn’t life peculiar, I think as I ring the bell.

Ms. Grimcass, the governess of Cheswick, is a staid and elderly woman. She is dressed in black giving the impression of having just returned from a wake. Her manner is cordial, one might even say maternal. She smiles and states how wonderful it is that the public has taken an interest in the school before inviting me into a Victorian-style sitting room. Would I like a cup of tea? Or do reporters prefer coffee, she wants to know.

“Tea is fine,” I say.

I don’t have the heart to tell her “reporter” is technically inaccurate. My designation is the “soft news” bureau.

While Ms. Grimcass is preparing the tea, I notice a young professional-looking woman sitting on a sofa in the adjacent room. “Pleasant day out today, isn’t it?” I ask just to make conversation. She doesn’t acknowledge my comment.

“Leila can’t hear you, Mr. Merrick,” Ms. Grimcass says as she returns with the tea. “She is one of our scholars.”

“Oh right . . .” I reply weakly.

I can hear the musicians in the opposite building rehearsing a work by Handle. It provides a pleasant ambience.

Ms. Grimcass gives me a condensed history of the Cheswick School and I scribble down the pertinent details in my notebook. I consciously try to act journalistic, posing questions and writing down her responses verbatim as if intending to use them for quotes. Soft news rarely uses quotations, but Ms. Grimcass seems pleased with the interview process. My attention is repeatedly distracted by a panel hanging on the opposite wall with the inscription:

If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear.

Psalms 66:18

When Ms. Grimcass notices my gaze, she smiles. “We here at Cheswick believe that a sound education begins with religious instruction,” she states matter-of-factly.

I only nod, scribbling absently in my notebook.

“And how long have you shared the building with the music conservatory?” I ask, changing the subject. I point in the air with my pen as though the music is palpable. In a way, it almost is. It permeates the absolute silence of the building, each dulcet note suffusing the air like a presence in the room.

“Since the early 1920s,” Ms. Grimcass informs me. “Lovely, isn’t it? All of us here have grown quite fond of the music over the years.”

I flash her an awkward smile, unsure whether she is trying to make a joke.

After the interview, I am given a tour of the facilities. Students shuffle through the halls, their heads angled downward and books clutched studiously under their arms. In the classrooms, teachers stand before rows of pupils communicating in sign language and drawing diagrams on chalkboards. The absence of any noise is conspicuous. Everything is mute like a silent film. These scenes are overlaid with the melodies coming from the neighboring music school, now rehearsing a somber piece by Berlioz. The effect is surreal.

On the upper floor, the rooms are designated for speech therapy sessions. More advanced students sit with instructors who demonstrate how to position the lips and tongue to make phonetic sounds. Ms. Grimcass interrupts the class, communicating to the students in a series of hand signals. I assume that she has introduced me and wave.

“I aem pleesd tow meet yoo,” one student says to me in slow deliberate speech. “Doo yeu layk ower scool?”

I tell her that I am also pleased to meet her and that I am very impressed with her school. She looks to Ms. Grimcass, confused.

“Ensure that your lip movements are pronounced, Mr. Merrick,” she instructs. “This particular student is still learning to read lips.”

I repeat the phrase again, articulating each word slowly. The girl smiles. The music students have suddenly switched gears and moved on to a piece in tempo allegro. The transition feels appropriate, but the girl is unaware. I am becoming conscious of what it must be like to live in a world of eternal silence, to never hear your own voice or the verbalization of your own thoughts.

The last wing of the tour is the conference room, now empty. It is a large formal chamber with high ceilings and decorative fixtures. Pale sunlight pours through the eight-foot-high windows located at the opposite end.

“This is one of my favorite rooms in the building,” Ms. Grimcass tells me as we walk, our footsteps echoing on the hardwood. “It was designed by Norman Bentley in 1898.”

I nod, pretending I know who this is. I recognize the music coming from the conservatory and pause at the window. It is by Brahms. From my vantage point, the entire courtyard is visible. Cheswick students walk about the grounds below, shrouded in imposed silence. It all seems cruel to me as I rest my elbows on the windowsill and listen to the chorus of violins, oboes, and woodwinds travel across the air. Then, fixing my gaze, I discern the graceful gestures of swinging arms, the synchronized footsteps and almost balletic quality of bodies as they move along the paving stones and between the garden shrubbery. From this elevated perspective, I can see a living symphony unfolding before me.


About the Author

Alistair Rey is a writer of fiction and parafiction who currently resides in Cardiff, Wales. In the past, his work has appeared in such magazines as the Parenthetical Review and Juked, among other publications.