Silence in Heaven
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour
You won’t read this, but that’s not the point. It’ll leave me, that’s the point.
These days I live and think in spirals, Billy. Meeting, moving apart, meeting again, touching and parting. Always spirals and always downward. People talk about being at the bottom, down in the pit, bottoming out. But I don’t get to the bottom. I’m always on the way down, turning round and round and never arriving. Like when you stand a corkscrew on its tip and turn it, and it seems to go on down for ever, never finding an end, down and down, round and round, starting over and over and over.
It wasn’t like that even just a few years back. I had so much hope, such good prospects of overcoming, of breaking out of the past. So much is down to the simple passage of time, Billy. Family likenesses come out more and more—old ghosts, waiting, just waiting to be made flesh again.
I thought I could grab the corkscrew and stop its endless turning. Give you a head start. Settle back in my old age and think, maybe I handed him something, something of value, something of life. I had a kind of vision. I saw clearly, for a while, how it would be if I could find the thermals and rise like an eagle over the edge of the whirlwind into the throne room of God. Have the codes in my brain and nervous system re-written, so that I wouldn’t have to sink into smallness, under-achievement, idleness, anger.
Anger, Billy. There’s been enough of that. Better not to know the thermals were there than to know I would never find them, or having found them, would not be able to keep with them, would lose them, and crash back broken to the earth.
Anger because the natural resting place of my eyes is the ground, Billy. They swivel back there as if my head is spring-loaded. I push against the spring until I’m tired and dispirited, and then I’m back, gazing down, seeing my own inheritance, my own private plot of land, marked out by a cold stone wall unbroken by any door or gate.
What was I handed, Billy? Mum and Dad. Their Mums and Dads. Turning, turning. The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generations.
You, Billy. And me. My Mum. Sinned against and sinning.
Fuck the sins. Love the fathers and mothers, but fuck the sins.
You see, they called my mother cold, vicious and ruthless. That’s what people who don’t understand and don’t know you say. They can’t see the armour even when it’s squeaking and clanking two inches in front of their faces. They’re so busy frowning and nodding and talking to one another and keeping concerned distances. They haven’t got time to stop and look. Really look, I mean. Look wanting to see.
But I don’t blame them. They’re on their own spirals, making their own way down. The coincidence of shared experience maybe gives a glimpse of someone else; but that’s about it.
No-one saw me, Billy. No-one saw me stretched out on the floor, crying, crying out against my own sins and the sins of my parents and parents’ parents all the way back to God and Adam. I did that for a bit, but then you have to stop.
I learned about stopping, and about armour, from my Mum. She died long before you were born, Billy, and was ill long before she died. None of us knew how bad she was. Knowing would have made such a difference. Of course it would. But she didn’t make a fuss. She was the sixth of seven born to parents who lost interest after two. Her job was to make her own bed and look after her younger sister. Don’t be noticed. Certainly don’t cause trouble.
No-one saw me crying those other times, either. Much earlier times, when Mum used to lose her rag. Not the cold, considered slipper of justice, but the wild thump and kick of desperation. She was cold afterwards, though. She drew in to stay alive. That’s what happens when you’re in a very cold place, Billy. Your blood retreats from your skin to keep hold of body heat, and you go blue and brittle. And people say you’re cold, and let’s face it, you say you’re cold. But inside, in your gut and your liver and your heart, you’re still at the regulation 98.4. Still you, vital, alive; but you can’t express it.
I’m telling you, Billy. Nothing I did was deliberate. And she didn’t mean to hurt me. That’s just it, isn’t it? We didn’t mean to, but we did it. We were driven, and yet we chose.
Oh, Billy, my son, my own son. When they took me away from you that last day I had already made my way out of the cold to the warm inside. Trying to stay alive even when everything was gone. So they said of me what they said of my mother. And they measured out a ration of retribution which might have been right for a cold person.
Your Mum used to read the papers and say, ‘Here, Greg. There’s a bunch of scientists in the States who reckon they’ll soon be able to correct behaviour by tweaking a few genes. That’s what you need. That cow of a mother could have done with it too.’
They all said she was a cow, you see. All my aunties and uncles who boxed her ears and pinched her food and set her up for laughs when she was a kid. All sweet and cuddly and spreading out in their old age now. You wouldn’t think, to look at them, what they’d done to her. Your Mum believed all the fat aunts and wasn’t interested in what I told her. ‘That’s just kids, Greg. Kids are tough. She ought to have got through a bit of teasing. Doesn’t justify what she did.’
Well, maybe I was only teasing you, Linda. If you’d got through that ... Grown-ups aren’t as tough as kids, though.
But she was right, your Mum. And she didn’t have to put up with what I dished out. She ought to have gone before we had you.
The thing is, Billy, that if you can mend behaviour by fixing a broken gene, then we’ve been told a lot of lies. What the hell for?
To keep us on the straight and narrow? Wonderful what a bit of fear and guilt can do.
To make sure we don’t have it any easier than they did? Yes, that too. Revenge in a negligée.
I’m sorry for sounding off like this, Billy. The view out over the next twenty years is bleak.
Fuck the sins and the fathers. Me sitting back feeling smug about what I’d passed on to you is sick. Sick sick sick.
I came in one day from school and Mum was out the back, in the kitchen. She didn’t hear me until I got right across the living-room and was about half way through the connecting door into the kitchen. She straightened up, whirled round, and yelled. I don’t know what she yelled about. I don’t think I even heard it at the time. What I remember is thinking, Mum’s bending over with her hands on her tummy, crying. I said, What is it, Mum? And she came across those old uneven red and black tiles with her hand raised over her head, and I ran. Back through the living-room, out into the hall with the flaked blue paint and broken coving, up the stairs with the thin strip of brown stringy carpet up the middle and bare wood either side, into my bedroom. Banged the door. Flung my bag down. Waited for Mum to follow me in. Oh God, God, oh God.
No. No, not this time. I was going to fight her this time. No, not fight. I was going to talk to her. Make her talk to me. Son to mother, mother to son. Shit. I’d seen her when she didn’t want to be seen, so she was going to belt me. No. I love you, Mum. Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Forget all that. Love you. Something we didn’t say to each other. So much we didn’t say.
I waited, crouched on the floor the far side of the bed.
I kept waiting.
I never spoke to your grandmother again, Billy. When I finally got up the courage to go downstairs, she was lying face down on the kitchen floor. There was a smell of piss and shit where her muscles had gone slack and she’d emptied out. My Mum, Billy. Lying dead in her own kitchen. A saucepan lid jumped and jiggled—the last thing she was cooking, peas and potatoes to go with a steak and kidney pie in the oven. Clink-clink-clink. The lid danced, and water escaped now and then and hissed into nothingness on the ring. Clink-clink. That’s the sound of my mother being dead, Billy. Clink-clink-clink.
She hid it all away, all that stuff she went through as a child, letting it fester on through her adolescence and into her adulthood, until it was forced out of her, under pressure, all distorted and ugly and horrible. You’d have thought I would have learned.
Dad cried and shouted when he came in. ‘Darling Maggie, darling, no, no, no,’ with great blubbering tears, his face completely ridiculous. Then he cheered up, got the funeral sorted, and carried on living. Started living, in some ways.
He’s never thought about that, Billy. Why should he? He didn’t think before. Unbelievable, what he didn’t and doesn’t see. He doesn’t know now. I never tried to tell him at the time, and of course I won’t now. ‘Your mother wouldn’t lay a finger on you, Greg. Wonderful woman. Don’t ever say that again.’ So we don’t talk anymore, because we didn’t talk to start with.
There’s a man next door who screams. I can’t bear the sound of a man screaming. He’s in there on his own, and he screams until someone comes running. Slap slap slap bang bang feet along the corridor, voices shouting, ‘Belt up, you crazy bastard’. Crash the door opens, crash it shuts. Slap bang, fists against bone. Are they beating him or is he going for them?
Compassion, care, consideration: they’re not here, Billy. Every man brings in here what he needs to survive. Compassion is for keeping the weak alive. In here you survive, and if you can’t, you die. No-one will keep you alive if you can’t do it for yourself.
It starts again in here. Putting on the armour. Go inside, looking, looking. Looking for life. Clinging, grasping: and in the grasping, destroying. Seek and you shall find; but if you want to find your life, you’ve got to lose it.
But if you lose it, it’s gone. One chance. Gone in the letting go, gone in the grasping.
He screams. He can’t keep himself alive. There’ll be someone else in there soon. But they won’t wash down the walls. His blood will help the next man along the learning curve. It’s steep and short. You learn or you die.
You learn or you die. Your choice. Choice even in here, where you come by the will of others.
The will of others, but still your own choice.
And so on, back, back, back.
But not for ever.
The day you were born, Billy, I both started and stopped believing in the miracle. I was there, all the time buzzing round your mother’s bed like a worried fly, panting with her—short short long, short short long—mopping, wiping, holding her hand, rubbing her back and legs. I hadn’t touched her so much since we made you. Her head ached: I rubbed it. She had cramp in her calves: I stretched her toes and squeezed the knotted muscles. She screamed: I kissed her. Outside the window, across the field, trains shot along the railway track, full of people walking round the small circles of their lives, heads down, turning, turning, round and down the tight curves, round and down, round and down. But in that hot little room we were tearing down the bars of our cage, your Mum and I. We were up on the thermals, in the throne room, sharing the work of God.
But I knew when I saw the blood, Billy. Life begins with so much blood. It swilled out of your mother, over the bed, across the floor. My shoes squelched as I craned to see your face, the face I’d helped to build. You got stuck. The midwife rang the emergency bell and a doctor came in so fast I thought he’d popped up through the floor. He got his big hands round your slippery shoulders and the blood turned his arms red up to his elbows. The room stank of it—hot, sticky, sweet, thick, sharp.
It begins, goes on, and ends in blood. There you were, dragged out of nothing into the womb, and dragged again out of the womb into that room full of blood. All by our choice, not yours. And yet as you grew, we would put it all on you, just as it was put on us. Choose. Choose. Choose, Billy, choose. And you would know that you had to; and you would look at us and say, but you built me with bits of yourselves. And you’d see us, and with us, your own limits. We didn’t change in that room of blood and miracles. We were lifted for a time; then we crashed. And you’d know that the first and biggest choice was not yours at all, but ours. And faced with having to make a whole series of choices all because of one forced on you by someone else, what would you do?
Maybe what I did, what my Mum did, inside the armour. Take up the long shout ringing down all the years from when Man was flung out of Eden. The cry of rage, frustration, self-pity—and damnation.
I wanted to spare you that, Billy.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And he saw that he had given to the sons and daughters of men the right to carry their own loads, and make their own choices; and the privilege of being judged thereon. And he saw that this was very good too.
And there was silence in Heaven.
Richard Coombes is a writer and translator (Russian to English) who lives and works in the United Kingdom. Richard’s output includes original songs and stories, and English translations of Russian songs, poems and stories.
In 2015 Richard decided to take early retirement in order to build his own language business. This included re-formatting himself into a translator, along with seeking ways to enjoy all the artistic activities which had given him pleasure over the years. His translation of Akim Tarazi’s novella ‘Retribution’ was included in an anthology entitled ‘Contemporary Kazakh Literature’, published in September 2019 by Cambridge University Press. Within the next month, B O D Y magazine will be publishing Richard’s translation of Elena Dolgopyat’s short story ‘Science’.
Richard’s own creative writing has, to date, resulted in suites of short stories for both adults and children, and a novella.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.