The Silent Room
The door smelt of stale biscuits, the child thought. She pressed her nose on the warm wood, and her eye to the keyhole, so that she could hear the strokes of her eyelashes against the cold metal, yet the contents still remained a silent mystery. Chloe didn’t believe her grandmother’s explanation that the room was full of junk, since Chloe has spied her through the banister leaving the room late one night crying.
Chloe ran upstairs into her bedroom. She slid under the bed reaching for her secret book behind the pile of discarded cuddly toys, opened the gold clasp with the little key she hung round her neck on a silver chain and opened its padded purple cover.
Saturday. Heard Gran talking to Granddad at breakfast. He was cross with her. Told her to go shopping, not the hospital again and that Mum had to start trying. Gran got cross. I’ve never heard gran cross before. Her voice was loud. She told Granddad to stop it. That she’d worked Mum too hard. She said other stuff too but I don’t get what she said. Anyway, Granddad didn’t answer. It just went quiet. I bet Grandma was unpicking her knitting again. She’s been doing that since Mum went into hospital. She hasn’t finished anything either. She just keeps knitting and unpicking rows of white wool. She didn’t used to knit when we visited. Says she’s knitting a scarf for my Mum. She didn’t drink that horrible whisky either. It smells like petrol to me. Yuk.
Chloe took her pen and wrote.
Sunday. I tried again to see into the locked room. I’m going to call it The Silent Room because nothing happens in it. What do I do now? Can’t ask Mum. She’s in hospital. I don’t know why she’s sad. What does gran mean that she worked my Mum too hard.. It all started when Gran started coming over with chocolate bon bons. Mum was always asleep on the sofa, still in that blue and white uniform. She was always tired from looking after disabled people in the home she went to every day. Maybe she’s just tired. When she ate the chocolate bon bons the white powder stuck to her lips because they were so dry and Gran wiped it away from her mouth and wiped her tears away too. She always used to say ‘You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Ever.’ Why did Gran say that to her all the time? Why can’t Mum get married and have a nice red car like Mrs Taylor next door? I’m going to write to Mum tomorrow.
Chloe had lived with her grandparents since her mother had gone into hospital ten weeks ago. After school most days, she dumped her school bag in the porch and ran down the pathway that led to the aviary at the bottom of the garden, hidden behind an overgrown hedge. The canaries with their flashes of yellow, pink, gold and vibrant greens darted around the cage. Chloe stood listening to the chirping of their miniature songs. She often pressed her ear to the wire to pick out each individual bird’s song from the orchestra of sound that greeted her. Chloe wrote to her mother, trying to describe them.
“Dear Mum. I hope you feel better and will come home soon. I’ve been in Gran’s garden and have been listening to the sounds of the birds in her big cage in the garden. She said they’re called canaries, but I can’t remember all their names. They make beautiful songs and I’ve been listening to them every day. I got all my spellings right today in class. Love Chloe xxxx”
Several days passed before Chloe’s grandmother handed her a letter.
“Open it sweetheart.” She said, a glass of whisky tilting in her hand.
“I’m going to open it in my room Gran.” Chloe didn’t wait for a reply, but rushed upstairs, flung herself on the bed and tore open the white envelope with ‘Chloe’ written in black ink in writing so small that Chloe thought it was a doodle.
“Hello my sweet Chloe. I’m so sorry I’m not with you. I’m so sorry sweetheart. I promise to be a better mum when I come home. I like your Gran’s canaries too. They have beautiful voices. They are musicians. I’d love to hear about their songs. Can you tell me what you hear. Sorry sweetheart. I’ll be home soon. All my love, Mum xxxxx”
“Dear Mum. I got you letter. I’ve written down the birdsongs. There’s a bright yellow one – it’s the colour of the t shirt I got on holiday in Wales last year. Do you remember? Its song is sort of wobbly and it goes on forever, then it just stops. There’s a white one. It’s just like the colour of snow. Its song goes up in jumps. Then there’s a black one with bright pink wing tips. That one has a song that sort of slides up and gets louder and louder. Then he does it all over again. Oh and then there’s a tiny little white on. Gran says it could fit in my stripy eggcup. It makes lots of little sounds. They sometimes sing all at the same time and the sound is funny. It makes me laugh. Well I haven’t listened to the pretty black one or blue one and green one and you’re probably tired now from listening to me. Please don’t be sad. When are you coming home? I miss you. Bye for now. Love Chloe xxxx.”
“My dearest Chloe. I will come home soon. Sorry. Your birdsong sounds lovely. I can tell you some words that can describe the sounds the birds make if you like. Sounds that go up in jumps are called arpeggios if they go up in a certain way. If a sound gets louder, it’s called crescendo. If a sound gets quieter, it’s called diminuendo. Sorry sweetheart not to be with you. Sounds that have little short bursts like your tiny little white bird – that sound is called staccato. I don’t feel so sad today. I think I might be coming home soon.”
The young girl held the letter and gazed out of the open window into the autumn. Honeysuckle framed the window, its flowers gone and the dry bark of the branches twisted as unravelled rope, waiting for the summer sun to bring its blooms. Years later this became Chloe’s favourite flower which she planted around the window frame of her music room. She suddenly felt frustrated by not knowing the sound of an arpeggio or how to pronounce the words her mother had written. The letter was her secret bond between them, but she needed her grandmother to speak the words to her.
She found her sitting in her dark red chair in the sitting room a glass of whisky cupped in her hands, staring into the fire. Her grandfather sat opposite her reading. The child thrust the letter towards her grandmother.
“I can’t read some of the words in Mum’s letter. I don’t know how to say them.”
Her grandmother took the letter in her pale fingers and peered over the top of her glasses at the letter. The fire hissed as the sap heated inside the logs. Chloe listened to it as her grandmother read.
“Crescendo. Diminuendo. Arpeggios.” She said. Her husband put his book on his lap and looked at his wife. She returned his gaze while Chloe stood between them.
“What’s an arpeggio? I want to know what an arpeggio is Gran.”
“It’s music.” Replied her grandmother and drained her glass of whisky.
“Show her Violet.” Said Chloe’s grandfather.
“Yes show me. Show me an arpeggio. I want to hear it. Please Grandma. Show me.”
Tears began to stream down the grandmother’s face.
“Why are you crying Grandma? What have I done?”
“You’ve done nothing. Your Gran will show you an arpeggio.”
The old woman pushed herself slowly to a stand.
“Come with me Chloe.” She whispered.
She led Chloe through the house to Chloe’s silent room. She lifted a silver chain from her neck and released the key that swung from it. Chloe held her breath as she watched her open the door.
Violet’s heeled shoes echoed a staccato on the wooden floor as she walked across the empty room to the curve of the window, where a piano stood with its case gleaming black against the cream curtains behind it. She sat on the black leather stool and slowly opened the lid.
“This is an arpeggio Chloe. It’s a sound your mother made many times in this room.” As Chloe listened, she heard only her mother, imagining her sitting on the stool with her beautiful hands playing.”
“Show me Gran. Show me how to play that. I want to learn.”
“It’s difficult Chloe.”
“I don’t care.”
“I will teach you and I will teach you for as long as you want to learn. If you want to stop at anytime, then you just tell me ok? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, ever.”
Chloe pressed herself close to her Grandmother and pushed down the keys. Warmth ran through her body as a blanket. She felt the sound as if it was a part of her – a limb that she had just discovered, as if the sound was attached to her. It was like breathing and though she didn’t yet know it, she could not live without the sounds and the warmth of the ivory under her fingers.
“Teach me Gran. Can Mummy teach me?”
“Oh yes. Your Mummy can teach you, but only if she wants to Chloe when she is well. Promise me you won’t pester her.”
“Dear Mum. I have something to tell you. Gran unlocked the Silent Room and I found your piano. I know how to play an arpeggio and she’s going to teach me. I’d like you to teach me but Gran said not to pester you, because you must only do it if you want to. I won’t ever pester you. I like the piano sound better than the canaries. Hope you’re feeling better today. Love Chloe xxxx”
“Do you like it Chloe?” said Violet as she poured steaming porridge into Chloe’s bowl the next morning.
“It’s pretty. Is it for Mum?” Chloe stroked the soft white scarf against her cheek. “It’s really soft.”
“I shall take it to her today. I think she may have a letter for you too.”
“Dearest Chloe. The Silent Room – Is that what you called my music room? That’s a good name. You found my piano. Yes I like it better than canaries too. And I would love to teach you when I come home. All my love Mum xxxx”