THE SOUND OF SILENCE BY MAIRI MACPHERSON
Published in SICK issue 01, 2019
Mairi MacPherson lives in the Scottish Highlands, where she grows vegetables with her husband Seamus and their many pets. A former academic, Mairi became ill with ME and POTS a few years ago and now gets frazzled by noise. Follow her on Instagram, Patreon, and Substack.
Not all silences are equal. Some are more silent than others, and some are noisier. Our house for example: it creaks and shifts and sometimes birds walk across the roof and sometimes mice scurry through the walls. Sometimes I can hear bits of rubble fall down in the wall behind my head, and I can distinguish between different kinds of rain from the sound each makes on the skylight. I always know which cat is padding up the stairs – Nigel thuds with each step while Penny walks silently with only a hint of the jingle from the little bell on her collar. I’ve learnt the sound of each neighbour’s car as they come home from work, and the pattern of their footsteps as they walk their dogs. I know when the geese are back and when the sheep are particularly angry and when the chickens are hungry. I can tell all of this from the darkness of my bedroom, with the curtains closed and the windows shut. Double glazing only filters out so much. And so do earplugs: the silence they create is like a soft cloudy pillow that cradles your head gently and makes you feel like you’ve just woken up from a long, involved dream.
• • •
• • •
I have become well acquainted with the sound of silence over the past three years. I spend at least 20 hours a day in bed, with no music or audiobooks or radio chatter to break the silence. I can only tolerate sound in lower doses, and I save my entertainment for the evening, when Seamus is home and we watch an episode of a TV show or listen to one side of a record. Quiet shows are a must – most modern films and TV shows have too much background noise and music and explosions and shouting for me to be able to take, but the comforting repetitive noises of the bridge on TNG and Voyager are just about doable.
There are always noises. Right now, I can hear: a plane overhead in the distance; Penny scratching her ears, her bell jingling; Seamus measuring out pasta for this evening’s dinner while listening to a documentary; our dalmatian breathing softly next to me on the bed; a lone sheep in the field at the bottom of the garden calling for its mates. You might not even notice these sounds, but for me they are always there. They are all constantly competing for my attention, fizzing around my brain like the bubbles in a champagne glass. I don’t often leave the house, but when I do I wear little foam earplugs to be able to cope with the music in shops, or the chatter in cafes.
I haven’t always lived in a silent world. I used to be an academic, rushing about from class to meetings, and surrounded by people all day long. Before I became ill, I worked in an open plan office that contained 52 people, phones, computers, photocopiers, coffee makers, and a drippy tap. For awhile I kept a record on the noise levels in there: it averaged 60 decibels. That environment, with the noise and the bright lights and the reflective surfaces and the lack of privacy, had a huge effect on my health. That world was so different from the silent one I inhabit now. A world that was fast paced and exciting, with more tasks than time to do them in, and the daily frustration of never quite being on top of things. There was a particular kind of noisy busyness in that open plan environment and it did not take long before it started to wreak havoc on my brain.
Soon, increasingly bad migraines with excruciating head pain, dizziness, nausea, and visual disturbances began to creep into my working week and my time at home, until one day I lost my ability to read or write. All I could do was lie in bed and hope it would go away. It never did, really; reading and writing returned slowly over a few days, but any kind of exertion can trigger it now, alongside slurred speech, overwhelming exhaustion, widespread joint and muscle pain, and a whole host of other symptoms that make you feel like you’re hungover, haven’t slept, and have just finished running a marathon. This is brought on by tasks that healthy folks wouldn’t even register as tasks: showering, going to the loo, eating, going up and down the stairs, talking to friends and family, or going to a café.
I take refuge in my garden whenever I can. Our garden is across a little lane, in a quiet village in the Scottish Highlands, on the east coast not far from the sea. To me, the garden is a noisy place: birds, sheep, cows, chickens, dogs and cats, neighbours, cars, lorries and tractors; the primary school at break time and the old ladies that walk past on their way to the shop, folks working on their cars or mowing their grass or cutting their hedges. The wind, always there, rustling in the trees above me. The rain, falling softly onto the roof of the polytunnel. But most of the time this is welcomed noise: it reminds me that I am part of the world even when I spend so much time hiding from it, and on the days when my brain can tolerate the tweeting, buzzing and baa-ing, I love nothing more than taking time to listen to the world around me.
Do you want to know what my favourite noise is these days? The small quiet crackle from inside my worm farm. You have to listen very carefully, but it’s there, and it makes me smile every time.