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a short story by Richard Salsbury

It was so simple before the world became silent. You had a job, you made money, you bought the things you needed to live. Don't you wish it was still that simple, Nathan?

Last week I had an object lesson in how precarious life has become. I was hunting for some tinned food in a supermarket - no, not the one you used to manage, the other one, on the west side of town. I chose it because it hadn't yet been badly pillaged. I was wary as ever, but there were only a few speechless there, and they were keeping to the opposite side of the store. They seemed too preoccupied with filling their faces and snatching food out of each other's hands to be any danger, but I was in for a shock: one of them had a pistol, and he decided to take a few potshots at me. The fact that they can no longer talk or read or write doesn't make them stupid, and any thoughts I was harbouring along those lines were rudely shattered by the first crack of the firearm. Needless to say, I ran.

So today I'm down to the last of the bread, picking off the mould and trying to think of somewhere else to get food. Soon I might be heading for the country to grow my own crops, but even with the two of us it's going to be difficult to stop them being stolen. That's the way it's going to be in the country - people holding on to their own little patch of land and jealously guarding it against everyone else. Not a very enticing prospect.

For now, though, I'm staying here, because I need access to all the books and journals I can lay my hands on. I'm going to find out what happened on January 6th. I'm going to find out why everyone except you and I stopped communicating.

At first, I tried to find out how this thing had happened - I was looking for a scientific reason. Although my academic qualifications in the sciences were pretty average, I felt sure that only science could provide me with a precise, inarguable answer.

So I started leafing through dozens of medical text books, trying to find a condition that caused damage to the language centres of the brain. I read up on linguistics and neurology, about Broca's and Wernicke's area, about dyslexia and dysphonia, trying to make sense of it. The closest thing I could find was aphasia - an "impairment of language comprehension caused by brain damage" - and even this wasn't really an accurate description of what I was seeing. I don't know if the speechless are genuinely brain damaged, but at least it gave me a name for the condition: I call it the Panaphasia.

Obviously there's another urgent question that needs answering - why have we been spared? Out of all the thousands of people I've seen since the Panaphasia began, why are we the only ones who still have the ability to speak? If we hadn't met up I'm sure I'd be insane by now. Strange how human contact can become as necessary for survival as food and water - I would have laughed if someone had told me this a couple of months ago.

Even so, I have to consider your companionship a luxury. The situation we find ourselves in leaves us little choice but to submit to the basest law of nature: the survival of the fittest. Philippa used to constantly goad me into getting more exercise, but I never found the time for it. The only punishment I'd have to endure was her calling me "sofa spud" a few times. Nature isn't so forgiving - if I'm not at the peak of fitness, I'll be killed by someone who is. Now there's an incentive.

Alan McGovern, novelist, 36. Those are the essentials. At the 'novelist' I used to get an "Oh, yes?" of interest, which, I have to confess, always gave me a bit of a thrill. 'Offbeat literary fiction' would probably best describe my line of work. A lot of people told me I had a strange imagination, including many among that small clique I could call my fans, so you might have expected me to be more prepared than most for the Panaphasia.

In Harsh Truths and Harmless Lies my protagonist becomes unable to tell his dreams from his waking life. There's a woman in "Jacaranda" who wills herself to develop a terminal disease because it will cause her unfaithful husband anguish when she dies. But I never believed anything this strange might actually happen - my words were metaphorical; it was never my intention to describe the world in realistic terms.

And yet it hurts me that things have turned out this way. It's because I'm a novelist, because words are my life. Before the Panaphasia I thought I'd become a writer simply because I enjoyed it, but I've come to realise that this was never the real reason. I wanted to share my ideas with my readers, perhaps even change the way they thought or felt in some small way. How vain.

I had experienced vague fears before that I might lose my ability to write - after all, it's on record that just such a thing happened (briefly) to Samuel Johnson and Walter Scott. But it never occurred that my audience might be prevented from understanding me. The urge to take it as a personal insult, the urge to scream at God, or nature, or fate for having done something so cruel becomes overwhelming.

And of course I can scream because no one will care. I can rant and rave until I'm hoarse. But I choose not to. Every word is a precious thing now - something to be savoured.

Before I met you, I latched onto the idea that writers in general had survived the Panaphasia; perhaps because we use words more often, love them more dearly. Like you, I went on the inevitable hunt for friends and relatives, only to find their houses abandoned. After that I tried to track down every writer I knew in an attempt to prove my theory. Ultimately, I was driven to search the houses of critics who'd savaged my work.

But you've been through all this. I don't need to tell you anything about desperation, do I, Nathan? Or disappointment.

Night is the worst time. It's only when the electricity fails that you realise how much you took it for granted. Now, the night brings a profound kind of darkness - not the comfortable gloom of pubs, or cinemas, or candlelit dinners, but a hostile darkness; the thing of childhood nightmare.

I used to sleep soundly. Now I find myself waking often, and for no discernible reason, wondering why the double bed seems so empty.

About ten days ago this happened at about three in the morning. I was trying to get back to sleep when I became aware of sounds from downstairs: creaks and soft thuds. It took me a while to determine what it was: someone trying to pull off the planks I had used to board up the windows. They were trying to make as little sound as possible, which scared me more than if they'd simply smashed their way through.

I got out of bed and picked up the long piece of wood I kept by the bedside. I've lived here for years, and know the places on the stairs that make a noise when I step on them, so I was able to creep downstairs without making any sound.

Someone was trying to get in at the kitchen window - I could see light and shadow moving between the planks. I lined up the length of wood with one of the holes in the barricaded window, then, when I was sure my aim was good, I shoved it through. There was a grunt of pain, followed by a dimming of the light outside and the faint sound of footsteps on the path. He was moving round to the other side of the house.

I went into the lounge and prepared to strike again from another window. He was further back this time, but came forward with his light - it looked like an electric torch - to see if he could find another way in. Before he could step back, I thrust the pole through again and there was a thud as I struck something solid, probably his head.

He hit the ground with a squeal and I waited in silence for his next move. To my astonishment, the next sound I heard was a sniff, followed by weeping which grew fainter as he walked away, defeated.

I dropped the stick and sat down on the sofa. It might have been someone I knew. Perhaps it was even one my friends, hoping to find some help in the midst of all the hostility. Whoever it was, they were probably just looking for food.

Do you think I was justified in what I did? I should have tried to speak to him first.

You think it was all right? Good. This guilt I feel over things like this is going to have to be suppressed. They don't have any qualms about defending themselves.

For now, the speechless will only try to steal surreptitiously, but as the episode in the supermarket shows, it may only be a matter of time before they lay siege to this place. If they attack in organised bands (and I'm sure they're capable of it) I don't know how we'll keep them out.

I know your back might not be up to it, Nathan, but you have to realise that it might come to that. Have you ever used a shotgun? I'll have to show you how.

I'm not sure exactly how long I spent trying to find the cause of the Panaphasia, but then that's one of its strange side effects: a dislocation of time. Have you noticed it? My watch still tells me the time and date, but they've ceased to have any meaning. There's no longer any way to differentiate between, say, Sunday and Monday, and I know that when Christmas and New Year eventually come - if we last that long - they'll pass us by. Now there is only day and night, and the cycle of the seasons. Everything else was just social convention.

Three or four years ago I forgot our wedding anniversary. This was the only time, mind you - the only time I forgot. Philippa was so disappointed in me - she didn't think she'd married someone who would 'forget the important times'. Now, strangely enough, I find myself wanting to feel that guilt again, because then at least I'd feel that the passing of time had some importance.

I also feel dislocated from the rest of the world. I realise now that I used to get my bearings by reading newspapers, by listening to the radio or watching TV. They gave me a sense of place - a feeling that I knew where I was in relation to the rest of the world. Without them I could be anywhere. The universe might have contracted until it was only a few miles across, with my house at the centre, and I wouldn't know the difference.

Trying to find a scientific explanation for the Panaphasia turned out to be a waste of time, and I concluded that I was asking the wrong question altogether. I didn't want to know how it had happened, I really wanted to know why.

You see, that's a much more profound question to ask. A medical answer gives you nothing - all you end up with is a name in Latin and some biochemistry you don't understand. I needed some kind of general truth about the whole matter; a nugget of knowledge that would help me come to terms with what the world has become. If I could find a reason for all of this, I would at least know how to live my life in accordance with it.

So the science books have been set aside. Now I'm reading philosophy and I find it's closer to giving me answers I can comprehend and accept. The idea that only science could provide the answer was narrow thinking on my part. Socrates got it right when he told his contemporaries not to trust what anyone else said. Each person must find their own truth.

I find the speechless endlessly fascinating, don't you? I've seen a few people I used to know (though never anyone close), and the change still shocks me. I saw my doctor soon after the Panaphasia struck. He was rooting through a rubbish bin, his tweed jacket streaked with mud. His expression seemed to suggest that he'd recognised me, and I wondered whether I should approach him, but he had already found some scrap of food and simply ran off to eat it in peace.

I call them 'speechless', but this doesn't even begin to describe their affliction. Is this a genuine disease they're suffering, or something altogether less intelligible? It's certainly more than an inability to speak, because if they really wanted to communicate, they would write things down, or use Morse code or sign language. With their slow reversion to savagery, I suspect that more of the brain is affected than just the language areas, but I may be mistaken: perhaps necessity forces them to act this way.

Without language are they even able to form abstract thoughts any more? How, except through language, can they understand concepts like duty or love or morality? I think all of these things are being worn away. I think that soon only the most basic imperatives will remain - food, warmth, safety - and with baggage of my morality, I sometimes catch myself envying the guiltless simplicity of their lives.

Going outside is always depressing. Although the buildings still stand, the town has become a wasteland, a kind of spiritual Dresden. I've tried to find the quietest times, but it's difficult to predict. Sometimes the streets are all but empty, and other times there are hoards of them out there. Whenever I see a pack of them congregating, I slip away somewhere quieter.

'Pack'. I suppose that word shows you how I feel about them. They're like wild animals - they don't belong to our species any more. Or perhaps I should say we no longer belong to theirs.

I still write every day, but what ends up on my notepad no longer seems important to me. I used to believe that everyday life was a façade, and that by reaching beyond it with my fiction, I might find some hidden meaning.

What a ridiculous thought. There is no meaning. And yet I still feel the compulsion to scribble down my thoughts and ideas. I suspect this is more from habit than any sense of necessity, any hope that I might achieve something though it.

I'm constantly distracted in my writing, but not for any obvious reason. I've become used to the sounds from outside - the howls of dogs, the sudden fights that break out. What unhinges me is that I'm not interrupted any more. When I worked in the afternoon or evening, Philippa would bring me tea and coffee on a regular basis. She wouldn't leave after she set the mug down - instead she'd ask how it was going, or tell me what she was watching on TV, anything to get a few words out of the ghost that was her husband. I didn't mind, just nodded or muttered something vague, and minutes later I would notice that she had left at some point. I shut her out, much like I shut out the speechless now. Was writing really that important to me?

Sunday was a terrible day. Not because I was attacked (I wasn't), nor because the food situation had become that little bit more desperate. There are worse things.

I was sitting in a corner of the library reading up on the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Some places around town attract the speechless like flies, but they rarely go to the library. Come to think of it, they didn't often bother even before the Panaphasia. Strangely, although I knew I could take home as many books as I wanted, some vestige of propriety stopped me from doing so. Maybe it was my respect for the place - it had, after all, provided me with endless research material and more than a few of my favourite novels. It felt safe, at any rate, and I had the shotgun with me for insurance.

I was tired and found myself re-reading the same sentence over and over again when I noticed it changing shape. I blinked and pulled my head back. The whole page had become a mass of black lines - I couldn't form the symbols into words. I found myself on my feet, and my skin seemed to recoil, as if I'd just stepped into a freezing cold shower. I closed my eyes and forced them to remain shut for the count of ten seconds. Then I sat down and stared straight at the page. The words were there again - sweet and familiar. One phrase in particular sprang out at me: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

For several minutes I struggled with the idea that I had not escaped the effects of the Panaphasia after all. I had to accept the possibility that it had just taken longer to get to me, and this was the beginning of a total loss of language.

The truth of Wittgenstein's phrase was no less shocking to me. What had happened to the human race was unprecedented. There was no language - scientific or philosophical - that could truly describe the Panaphasia. And yet to "pass it over in silence" as Wittgenstein said, to admit defeat, to confirm my fear that the whole thing would always remain unknowable... it was too much to take.

I feel no shame in what I did next. If society was still alive it might have condemned me as a lunatic, but new worlds surely require new ways of thinking. And what reason was there for me to hold back? There was no-one left to condemn my behaviour, nor any social taboo to break that had not already been made thoroughly obsolete.

It started with the walls. I took some of my favourite books and, holding them open with one hand, I used a paintbrush in the other to copy out my favourite passages: Keats, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Dylan Thomas. It took several days to cover all the interior walls of the house, but once I had finished the place seemed more like home than it ever had. Now, wherever I went in the house, there was the presence of beautiful prose and poetry to comfort me - pure black strokes that leapt from the walls; impossible to ignore.

In retrospect, perhaps there was a reason behind it all. By covering the walls with words, I was forcing myself to read wherever I went, exercising the language centres of my brain. Perhaps I knew this at a subconscious level, but as I splashed the paint on ecstatically, I was only aware that it felt right.

It worked until the day after I had finished: four days of hope, four days trying to believe that the episode in the library was a one-off. Until, sitting at the kitchen table after one of my forays into town, I looked up and the wall was an abstract painting. I was transfixed by the sight of it, and tried to will some structure into the chaos. It would stop. In just a few seconds everything would be back to normal.

As the sweat stuck to my collar, I became aware of the absurdity of trying to outstare a wall. There had to be another way to kick-start the part of my mind that had stalled. I staggered from room to room with increasing panic, aware that I was mumbling to myself but unable to make out the words. Perhaps they weren't words.

I ended up on my knees in front of a bookshelf in the lounge, with a volume of Shakespeare in my hands. I could identify it by its shape and colour - it was one of a set of leather-bound limited editions that Philippa had bought me one Christmas and that I had treasured for years. I opened it, hoping that something of sentimental value might help.

Philippa's dedication was written on the endpaper. It read "To my husband, with all my love - a thing of beauty is a joy for ever". But I was reading from memory: on the page her writing was a hopeless tangle. The first of my tears struck the paper with a deafening sound. The paper darkened as the drop was absorbed, the paper becoming translucent. Ink from the other side of the page started to show through, making the text even less intelligible.

The page didn't come out without a struggle. It left a jagged tear near the spine. No matter. I crumpled the thick paper into a ball and thrust it into my mouth. It tasted foul, but I forced myself to chew until the page had become a hard nugget, and swallowed. Then I removed the next page and ate that. And a third, and a fourth, before I could manage no more. I stifled the desire to vomit the words back up: they had to remain there inside me; I had to digest them. I lay down on the floor, exhausted, and at some point my feverish thoughts gave way to sleep.

My language came back the next day. Ingesting the book may have helped - I'm not sure. That may not sound rational to you, Nathan, but then is there any such thing as rationality any more? The reasonable, logical world has been swept away. Who's to tell whether superstitions and horoscopes and spirits aren't for real? Without a consensus of opinion, who's to say what rules and laws govern the world? I have only my own direct experience to tell me what reality is, and I wonder if the world I once knew was really the illusion after all.

Socrates would have been proud of me.

You want to know what happened to my wife, Nathan? I thought it would come to that sooner or later. You have to spoil it all, don't you? And we were getting along so well.

All right: I killed her. That's what you want to know, isn't it? I killed my wife.

You want to hear it? The whole bloody thing?

All right, then.

It was on the day of the Panaphasia: January 6th.

She often used to get out of bed before me, so I wasn't surprised to find her side of the bed empty when I woke. I showered and dressed before going down to meet her - she would probably be doing some toast at this time of the morning.

But she wasn't in the kitchen, or in the lounge, or - as I searched the rest of the house, increasingly puzzled - anywhere else. Had she mentioned an early start at school? I didn't think so. And her coat and handbag were still here.

I stepped out of the front door in my socks and folded my arms against the cutting January air.

"Philippa? Philippa?"

Rows of houses standing staunch against the cold, beyond them the black hills and the silhouettes of a few hardy trees bending before the wind. Already I knew that something was wrong; something more than Philippa's absence.

Without putting on a coat, without even really knowing why I was doing it, I went outside. I intended to ask the Wilsons next door if they'd seen her, not knowing that something as simple as a conversation had become a thing of the past.

She came back at about two o'clock in the afternoon. I was in my study upstairs, sitting on the floor and trying to grasp what had happened, when I heard her footsteps. I went out to the landing and there she was, halfway up the stairs. She wore a look of fear I will never forget. As someone who uses words every day, you'd think I could describe her face. I can only see it.

I reached out to her, calling her name softly and she took a step back. Despite her expression - perhaps because of it - I continued towards her. I wanted her in my arms, to bring back some sense of stability. I wanted to reassure her, to comfort her. I wanted her to say something.

She stepped backwards. She slipped.

I've read about people who have survived skydives where their parachutes didn't open, people who've been shot in the head or starved of food for weeks and still lived. And my wife died hitting her head on the banister.

I was kneeling on the rose-patterned hall carpet, cradling her head, and the blood was pouring through my fingers, and I was saying, "Philippa, Phillipa." I said it over and over again.

It was the last thing she was to hear. And I still don't know if she recognised the word.

This snow will keep on settling. It's becoming difficult to see the houses through the flurries. Have you noticed that where the folds of snow are getting deep they're wearing away the clean, artificial lines of the buildings and roads and fences? It will take centuries for nature to wipe away the evidence of civilisation, but that's what's happening. And nature has the patience to see it through. Now we will fall back into that strict Darwinian way of life, where only the strongest survive. This is nature's way of bringing us back into the fold: the Earth Mother reclaims her wayward children.

Why? God knows. I've long since stopped trying to make sense of it. Sense is something human beings apply to situations; it's not inherently present in nature.

I don't expect you to feel sorry for me, Nathan. Everything I've told you happened to someone else, a long time ago; I'm a different person now. When your life changes radically you have to change with it. All things considered, I think I've managed to adapt pretty well. Part of that adaptation involves forgetting the past and trying to forge something out of the future - accepting that what's gone is gone.

God, I miss her.

Philippa didn't say anything to me on that morning before she died, but I have no proof that she could no longer speak. Perhaps, like me, she had been spared and was simply too disturbed by the Panaphasia to say anything. I killed her trying to find out.

That's what you're here for, Nathan - to help me with this. I've lived with you for several days now and I can see that things aren't working out the way I'd hoped. Creating a character in a novel is one thing; creating one in real life is something else again. When it's getting dark and I look in the mirror, I can almost believe that my reflection is a companion. When I speak my thoughts out loud for long enough, I can almost believe I'm having a conversation.

Is this madness? No. There's no such thing any more. There's only me and my thoughts. The only reality that can have any meaning for me is the one in my head. If I can just believe hard enough, perhaps I can make you real. I've tried to tell myself that Philippa's death wasn't my fault, but I can't persuade myself that it's true - I still only think it's what I want to believe. I can't forgive myself. I need someone else to do it for me. I need you.

© Richard Salsbury 2001, 2002.

This story first was first published in World Wide Writers.

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