Yesterday a stranger rang. She had a fussy voice and referred to me as 'love'.
"Is Meg there?" she asked.
"N-no," I told her.
"No," I said again. "There isn't any Sarah."
"Well who are you then, love?" she said.
I put the phone down. I don't know why. I was fairly sure who I was and quite certain that this woman could not argue with it. It didn't ring again all that day. I sat alone, reading and smoking. The ash felt like it was crusting my fingers, tainting my voice, my lips. The book was existentialism, and its thoughts coated my mind like icing sugar, sweet and sickly.
When Eric came home, he was drunk. I put my book down and looked at him half-heartedly. I was sitting beside a reading lamp, and everywhere else was dark. Eric was staggering a little and looking at me. He slid onto the floor, drawing his legs up to his chest, his jeans squeaking on the scratched boards. Eric had been contemplating committing suicide for as long as I had known him, but was never able to decide on a method.
"I'm not very drunk," he told me.
"N-no," I said. I could see he wasn't.
"What have you been doing here?" he asked. "Why are you on your own?"
I was generally on my own. I would have been on my own all the time, probably, except for Eric. And I doubted I would have even seen him any more, except we were sharing this flat.
He got bored of his question, as I knew he would. "Oh, God, I'm just so sick of it-" he said, trailing off and waiting for me to ask what was wrong. Eric muttered when he wanted you to offer him sympathy. I picked up my book again.
"No one cares about me," he murmured forlornly. "I thought you might, at least, Dina," he said, more loudly, and I could feel his eyes on me. I was bored with him. I was bored with everyone, but especially him. He never changed; he didn't even bother to vary the quality of his depression.
"Dina?" he said loudly. "Doesn't anyone care?"
I shook my head, and turned a page, although I hadn't quite grasped the last one. He got up loudly and slammed his bedroom door. There was silence again in the dark oblong room, and re-read the page I had been interrupted in, and lit another cigarette.
There was silence in the house, too, the next morning, when the black smog turned grey again, and the sparrows began their chattering. I lay in bed watching the patterns of car's headlights on the ceiling, and feeling an ache in my throat, and in my stomach. I drank orange juice, which made my stomach worse, and went out, walking through the cold streets, my knuckles turning red.
The silence was oppressive when I got back, even though usually I loved the moment of silence when the door closed on the world, and there was nothing but the empty hall and I. Eric was dead, I thought suddenly. Eric had finally killed himself, and I would have to walk into his bedroom and find his corpse lying out on the bed, covered in blood perhaps, or vomit; and I would cry and mourn. I could pretend, I imagined, that we had been in love and all the nameless people I saw everyday would feel sorry for me and empathise with my silence.
Fearfully I walked across the room. My heart pounded, and I wondered if I would feel terrible for my earlier thoughts, if perhaps, by wishing him dead, I had made it so. I opened the bedroom door, and Eric lay on his bed.
He held a knife in one hand, a long carving knife with a wicked silver blade, and an empty bottle of whisky was on the floor, the led screwed on. He opened his eyes and smiled at me, and for a dreadful moment I thought he was a zombie and my heart began to race, and then I realised it was just he and I smiled back.
"Dina!" he said heartily. "What's wrong?"
"Are y-you okay?" I asked him quickly, and he smiled lazily again.
"Oh, yes, oh yes," he said. He hid the knife beneath the bedclothes.
"I might n-need that for something," I said.
Eric laughed. "I'll buy you a new one!" he said. "I'm moving out!"
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked quickly.
"Nothing!" Eric said. "Nothing bad, anyway. Didn't you hear me? I'm moving out!"
"Oh. Oh, y-yes?"
"Yes!" Eric said too loudly. "Dina, I think I'm in love."
"Y-you didn't mentioned it last-"
"Last night? Oh, you know how moody I am. She doesn't mind, I'm so happy!" his words come in a rush.
"How long have you know her?" I asked.
"Well." He said. "Well." I couldn't tell whether he was warming up for a story or just didn't remember.
"I won't let y-your room until you're sure you're happy," I said.
"Don't be such a pessimist," he said. I had thought I was being polite.
"Tell me when you leave," I said. Suddenly I wanted to finish my book, smoke a cigarette, lie alone and watch the clouds shift above the skylight.
"You are such a freak, Dina!" Eric said. "I'm your only friend and I can't stand you."
Tomorrow he will probably apologise for that, I thought, and lay down on my bed and turned of the light. I was tired in my bones, but my train ticked on.
Totally alone, I became more desperate for solitude. Nowhere seemed far enough away. Even during the darkest hours of the night I could hear cars, and people shouting. I wanted to be ensconced in perfect silence, but at the same time I knew that could never be. Under the noise of everything, sometimes I hear music. I search to hear the notes in the quiet but only under the buzz of traffic and voices do they exist. It is a tune I will never really hear.
My job paid the same and rent rose as usual, and I needed someone to take Eric's place. But people made noise and I couldn't quite be bothered to post notices and smile and make friends. I lay still each night and tickled my body and couldn't feel my fingers. I watched the night and read dusty books. One night, in all the silence, I heard crying. I covered my ears but it was instant and I looked outside.
Eric stood in the hallway. "I have your knife," he said.
"Give it to me," I said with a desperate urgency, realising something, and he pulled it from his bag. I grasped the black handle, feeling its comfortable weight in my hand.
"Eric?" I asked. He had tears on his cheeks, and I touched his chin.
"No one notices," he said. I led him inside and closed the door.
"Don't they see?" he said, breathlessly, rubbing his cheeks and touching my hand, "I hurt so much, don't they see? Everyday I feel like I'm falling deeper and –deeper and they don't see me, even though-" He sobbed.
"Eric." I said. "If suicide is a cry for help, then everything else you do is only a whisper. Everything else you feel, is just a whisper. And under all this noise, who's going to hear you whispering?"
"But it's quiet in here," Eric said. He's right. When I hold my breath and listen, I can only hear his breaths.
He put the heels of his hands to his eyes. "You're the only person who – who hears. And I don't even like you." Tears leaked out from under his fingers.
I don't really like him, either. But I like the sound of his ragged breaths in the air. I like listening to things, voices in the dark. Perhaps, I thought in passing, I should find more people and listen to them.
The smog was smoky black against the skylight. "Thank y-you for the knife," I said, and put it back in its drawer.
"Can I stay here? Dina, please?"
"For tonight," I told him. "But not after that. You don't like me."
"No," he said, almost wonderingly, "I don't."
Lying in bed again I fell asleep listening to the sound of his breathing. In the morning, he was gone. The knife was back in its drawer, and, apparently, he had a girlfriend. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was much too skinny. I put some bread in the toaster, and turned on the radio. The tune was sweet, the lyrics not unusually sentimental.
There are strangers on the other end of the phone, I thought as I buttered my toast. There are strangers everywhere and one of them can live in Eric's room.