We sat there listening to each others’ silence. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, I tried to look away. We got garlic bread and gravy. Paneer. Chilled cucumber. Yoghurt.
His face was a locked house; the eyes were shutters. We said nothing. Not a word, except the sound of a distant helicopter, a bird, and muted sounds of traffic through the glass doors behind him. Karim pulled his chin in and smiled at the table. He had a dimple when he smiled. He had old eyes and a stoop that made him look anywhere between 30 and 50.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he said as if he were savouring the freedom of saying it;
this Thing had its agenda, it was a Spirit in itself. It had a time chart, its own vocabulary of mutters and words. The words were heavy, or clipped. Random. Philosophical. Questions were flat, with a full stop. Karim and I used to be such idiots together, never mind the whole decade between us. Now he had pondering eyes, eyes filling with regret, pain. Something in me bowed to him; it was an honour to share a dark detail like that, a detail that had changed him from a live wire guitar/ vocalist, to a hesitant human being. We were here, waiting for the rest of us to arrive; it was a day filling with sunshine. “Talk to Karim,” someone had said, I had looked forward to this, now I knew it wasn’t easy to talk, or even chat about the weather. The alcohol within had become a presence. We were three people here: the one Karim used to be (and all his apologies for not being that person anymore), the one he was now, and the personality of alcohol itself:
“I’d love to hear one of your new songs, Ka,”
He gave me a half smile and stare.
“You won’t like my songs anymore, Ms. Ray.”
Nice! He was calling me Ms. Ray again, like old times. I had to check myself from talking too much, too soon, too warm.
“They sound old and boring, flat. No story. The last one I wrote was a few minutes ago, wrote it in my head. ” ‘Don’t let this last too long, I’m not used to the sun, I’m sad when I’m happy, cuz that one doesn’t last, so let it be just pieces of the light falling in, a little at a time..’ ” he stopped and coughed. An old grin slipped back in for a breath, then it was gone.
” .. I don’t understand why I must do that , y’know? Drink? There was no particular cause for it to start again, ‘least I can’t say yet. We’re trying to change..”
I didn’t want to intrude, this was so personal. Tears stung the back of my eyes but didn’t dare show. He talked for a few very long moments, it felt like that. Maybe it was just five minutes, I’m unsure. When the others arrived, Karim grinned and said how much he enjoyed listening to horrific tales of Ms. Ray’s (hey?!) drinking habits! That day by the lake, slowly slipped into early evening, the kids were full of chatter. Some of us just sat there staring at how light looked on water and how beautiful the ugly old pelican statue looked, its painted wings basking in gold dusk.
Maybe Ka will stop his habit one day, maybe he will respect his songs, and not underestimate the strength he has. Later he said it was a joy to talk to someone and not be judged. I wanted to say some things there, but the words wouldn’t come all out ; ‘ Thank you Karim, for trusting me with your pain, knowing I’d have no answers. I’m not even qualified to understand any of that; and what a joy it was to hear you laugh again, even just a little hint of it…’
Maybe I’ll tell him next time. Maybe not. Sometimes words are difficult to speak out loud, it’s easier to listen. I appreciate Silence so much more now than ever before – silent moments between awkward pauses – what do they do – unlock our gates of iron within; our rusty lock and cords of steel? Maybe they do just that. Maybe the lesser we speak out loud, the more we look at one another. The more we listen, the less we judge, and the more we appreciate the spoken and unspoken details of life, each others’, our own. We spend a lot of time filling up gaps in conversation, filling up speechless moments;
I’m getting to see the power of silence…