As an only child, growing up in the city, I remember the first time my parents left me home alone for a weekend. The house was far too big for me, and since I lived in Hackney, but went to school on the other side of town, there wasn’t a sense of friends nearby, of a neighbour to run to if all went wrong. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, there was an order of lights you turned on and off as you moved through the house; first the landing, then the stairs, then the corridor, then the bathroom, then off again, tracking backwards in reverse.
Once, I got stuck in the house with a rat, and lay wide awake listening to its sporadic movements, and also to the thousand other sounds that weren’t it moving at all, but which I assumed meant it was about to jump on my head.
As an only child, silence was perhaps more common than company. I didn’t mind; but while the word ‘shy’ is very complex and not necessarily applicable, there have doubtless been times in my life where it has felt safer to be lonely, than be loud.
Leaving the city, I would sometimes have to walk across a pitch black field at 11.30 p.m. in a small town, just me and darkness and winter sky. The silence of it freaked the crap out of me, so much so that for the first show I did, I’d walk with an umbrella or even a stick in my hand, in case I had to beat off unseen attackers lurking in bushes. Even when my childhood house was empty, there were always lights sweeping through the windows and the growl of the bus outside.
In the last place I lived, my downstairs neighbour had troubles. He believed that I was drilling holes through the floor to spy on him; that I was somehow tracking his movements through his home. In the dead of night, he’d hammer on my door and shout through my letterbox, telling me to be quiet. When I had people staying over for any prolonged period – as I sometimes would, on the futon in the living room – he never bothered me. He only ever came and shouted through my door when I was alone, the threats escallating over the years until he finally caught me on the stairs and threatened to kill me, at which point I called the police.
When I think about him, I can be sympathetic for a little while. He was, no doubt, in a kind of hell. Then I remember four years of living in terror of him; four years of padding around bare-foot in case my slippers made too much noise on the floor, of playing the radio at inaudible volumes, of constantly turning the TV down and down and down, while underneath me he’d play roaring loud music to 2 a.m.. My partner couldn’t understand why everything had to be in hushed voices, and saw sooner than I did just how deep the fear had gone.
During that period, I learned to love podcasts. Silence was a threat; it was danger. Podcasts, the sound of human voices in my ears all the time, were an escape from all of that, and my addiction to podcasts has stayed ever since.
Moving into my new flat, on the first night we turned the radio up loud and danced, free, round the rooms. I haven’t turned it up loud much since, but am less scared of doing so, finally, though my hands shook the day I went to introduce myself to my downstairs neighbour.
I’ve also moved increasingly from lighting theatre, to lighting gigs. I always wear earplugs, so that in ten years time I still have hearing, but even so, the nights are loud, and meant to stick in your ears, and coming home at midnight I’ll often have to put on something else, quiet, to try and drive the noise from my brain – or just sit in silence, letting the buzz wind down.
And finally, slowly, I’ve come to like silence. Don’t get me wrong; I still love podcasts, love learning and music. I love the different quality of noises in different places, from the burble of a theatre auditorium heard from the gantries above, to the sound a friendly pub, to the slosh of the river or the rattle of a train. But I also love stillness. I love the place where the sounds stop. I love leaving one sense, and returning to another, being ok with touch, and smell, and sight, and just being here, wherever it is, and not needing to make noise or fear the quiet. Just being ok with silence.