Excerpt from Hush by Sarah Marshall-Ball (Myriad Editions - June 2015)
Lily’s lectures were always crowded. Richard wasn’t sure whether she noticed him, sitting at the back of the room, shadowed by a sea of eager undergraduates. He hadn’t told her that he sometimes came to watch her, performing small miracles of revelation which might impact on ten people in the audience, or a hundred, or even, by osmosis, the whole world.
He’d snuck in before she’d arrived, found a seat at the back of the lecture theatre. She rarely looked further than halfway up her audience; he knew it made her nervous to look at people who were so much higher than her. She directed her lectures at the people in the first two rows, and so there was always competition among the students to sit as close to the front as possible, something Richard observed with pride.
‘The continuum of probability falls somewhere from impossible to certain, and anywhere in between.’ Her voice was strong when directed at large audiences. It would be impossible to guess how rarely it was used outside her working life.
As she talked, Richard tuned out the individual words, allowed the rise and fall of her voice to wrap itself around him. He’d heard the lecture enough times before to understand the basic concepts, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t there to learn, or even to marvel in the amount that she knew. He was there simply to listen.
She spoke for two hours, her voice expanding within a scribbling silence. And afterwards she left, without preamble, without pausing to speak to her students, without seeing him there. The room bustled, and emptied; and Richard sat in the silence, alone, until all trace of her voice had faded.
He got a call from his editor when he was on his way back to the office. There had been a house fire on the outskirts of town. No one dead, but the family dog was badly burned, the kitchen and one of the bedrooms completely gutted. The person they would usually contact to cover the story was busy; would he mind stepping in?
The photographer was already there when he arrived, strutting self-importantly through the remnants of the blaze, taking photos of things which, through the act of being photographed, he hoped to inject with retrospective poignancy. He would undoubtedly take beautiful photos, none of which would be used. The shot that would accompany Richard’s story would be the standard family-stand-devastated-before-ruined-house photo. No artistry in that – nor, for that matter, in the writing that would accompany it.
‘Richard! What a surprise. Am I right in thinking you don’t usually do this sort of thing?’
‘Mmm. I suppose I’ve been working my way up to it.’ The photographer raised an eyebrow, and Richard relented. ‘Nick was busy,’ he admitted. ‘Someone found dead in a house in the city centre. Young girl, I think.’
‘Oh, yes. I heard.’ Of course you did. ‘Have you spoken to the family yet?’
‘No, no. Just arrived. Is the dog still alive?’
‘Yeah – lot of fuss about nothing, actually. His fur’s a bit singed but he’s fine. Not even a good photograph in it.’
Richard nodded. ‘Right. Well, I’ll go and speak to the family, then.’
The oddest thing about house fires that had been successfully extinguished was the way the damage just stopped. The fire had indeed gutted the kitchen: black walls, food packaging reduced to ashes, the room barely recognisable as it must once been have been. The flames had travelled upwards, taking out the bedroom above, and blowing out all the windows at the back of the house. But the fire door between the kitchen and the living room had been closed, creating a perfect border between the devastation of the fire and the normal life beyond. One side of the door blackened; the other standing as if nothing had happened. And, beyond, sofas, carpets, photographs of smiling children. Everything as it had been.
The family were huddled together in their living room, their space of preserved before-the-event. Mother, father, teenage daughter. It was the daughter whose bedroom had been destroyed, so she sat in tears, clutching her lightly toasted dog in desperate anguish.
Richard had never covered a story like this, but had been trained in journalism the same way that everyone else had. Knew the questions to ask, the sympathetic noises to make. He was not an intrusive reporter, he was a caring man, a defender of their truth – the man who was going to tell their side of the story. Not that there was really another side: it was a straightforward story; no arson, no foul play. A possible fault with the cooker, which he would need to be careful with, but other than that, simple. Wouldn’t take long to write.
He made his way back to the office. It was buzzing as always; that irresistible atmosphere of Things Happening Right Now. Sometimes he felt rather detached. Tried not to resent the fact that he didn’t get the stories, but couldn’t help feeling that the news took place around him while he sat blindly in the middle, groping for a handle on the world that stubbornly refused to materialise.
But this was different. Not the biggest news in the world, but it was a story nonetheless. Something that involved people, emotion, photographable snapshots of humanity. He was a part of the machine, which was so much more to him than just a machine. It was the fabric of his universe; the place where the world was transformed from Event to Word. He was so much more comfortable with Word.
He was one hundred words into the piece when his phone rang. He picked up the receiver absently, still focused on the sentence he was halfway through creating. ‘Richard Hargrove.’
‘Richard, hi. It’s Eric.’
It took Richard a moment to place the voice. And then it clicked: Lily’s colleague.
‘Eric. Hi. Everything alright?’
‘Well, actually, not exactly.’ Eric paused, a pause which sent a current of pure fear through Richard’s nervous system. ‘Now don’t panic. Lily’s fine, she is, but she’s been taken into hospital. She collapsed a little while ago.’
‘Collapsed? Do you mean she fainted?’
‘She was unconscious for about five minutes.’
‘Jesus. Did they tell you where they were taking her to?’
Richard copied down the details, in writing which, he observed in a detached fashion, was oddly controlled. His hands weren’t shaking, even though his heart was beating at about twice its usual speed. He left without bothering to shut down his computer, without remembering to tell anyone where he was going. He forced himself to walk in even strides to the door, down the stairs, out of the front door. Broke into a light jog as soon as he was outside, but did not run. No need to run, to panic. She probably hadn’t eaten, or maybe she was overtired. She’d had trouble sleeping recently.
No need to panic.
Five minutes was a long time.