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Sounds Of Silence In Spitalfields

May 9, 2020
by Delwar Hussain

Anthropologist & Writer Delwar Hussain sent me this latest in his series of pieces, describing his experiences of self-isolating with his mother in the family home in Spitalfields

Portrait by Patricia Niven

Silence is something we have been living in – and some of us struggling with – for many weeks. The house where my mother raised twelve shrieking children, her own and members of our extended family, now holds just her, the cat and me.

Siblings who usually live here are self-isolating elsewhere whilst nieces and nephews are being socially-distanced from Nani. Around us, the streets are silent. The Spitalfields Market has its gates locked and security guards patrol. The Truman Brewery is shut. On Brick Lane, most restaurants and all the bars and clubs are closed. The advertising office opposite our house is deserted. With no one there to do watering, I have observed their once extravagantly coiffed plants die a slow, thirsty death.

For several months before lockdown started, builders had been gutting the house next door. Banging, drilling, sawing, hammering, and demolishing to remove every last vestige of the family who were our neighbours for the last twenty-five years. The developers who have bought the house are not only intent on eradicating the history, but they are destroying the garden in order to build an extension to the kitchen, something every human being needs to live a good life, it transpires. The cost of a floating kitchen island has been the sacrifice of plants and an aged tree. All of the noise, the shuddering and juddering that the destruction causes, has mercifully ceased, if only temporarily.

Yet silence does not mean entirely noise-less. Everyday we hear the whirring of the hospital helicopters, the air vibrating as they fly low over us. The church bells and the azan from the mosque alternate through the day. As talk increases of the lockdown being lifted, people are venturing out more in their cars. The sound of traffic from Commercial St, like the swelling of waves, advances towards us with its foamed edges and recedes again. Then there is the chorus of birds – the cooing of the doves amusing themselves on the flat roof of our neighbour’s house, the drilling of the robin that visits our garden, the sweet twittering of blackbirds, the squadron of high pitched blue tits, the chattering magpies, the marauding gang of seagulls that took a wrong turn somewhere a week ago and barked at the cat, and the ka-ka-ka-wing of crows. This symphony grows from morning to a final crescendo at evening.

I do not know if the birds were always there or, if with less human presence in the city, they too are venturing out more. Maybe it is simply that I am noticing them now? My query was answered soon enough by my mother. ‘Poor creatures,’ she said, looking out of my bedroom window at the doves. ‘Their stomachs must be empty – not a single restaurant open, having to make do with the leaves on the trees.’ I had an image of the birds with napkins around their necks waiting to be served by a haughty waiter. They did not look hungry to me, these doves were as big as footballs. Nonetheless I am guessing that my mother is familiar with them, whereas I have only just become aware of their presence.

The two of us have been living with other sorts of silences or, rather, it may again be just me who has noticed them for the first time. My mother and I, despite our love of chit-chat, gossip, storytelling, and sociality, are silent people. Not quiet nor silenced, we dream, we have voices, we speak, we demand, we see and listen. Yet our tread as we walk around the house is silent. We open and shut doors silently. My mother gardens in silence with only occasional humming, so that you might miss her if you went out to look for her, crouched amongst the branches in her brown cardigan, plucking a leaf here, or pinching another there. I read and write in silence, hence my vexation at the construction work next door. There is no radio in the kitchen.

These are our varieties of silences as we go about the house and exist in the world. Then there are the silent silences, the ones we hold and keep to ourselves. These are the purposefully unspoken ones, the gaps and the omissions. There are silences that are impenetrable, cannot be confronted or broached, least of all when my mother and I are self-isolating with one another.

What is it we each wanted to achieve with our lives? What is it that we did achieve? What are our failures? Whom did we fail? Did we learn from our mistakes? Do we forgive each another’s mistakes? They include unspeakable traumas and unspeakable loves. My mother wants me to marry, but I need her to accept the partner I have chosen. She would like me to cut my hair, shave and get a proper job, while I would like her to recognise her children’s achievements.

We live with these silences. They are solid, ever-present and are not things we can ignore. They are the substance of our relationship as much as what is said, the spoken and the noise.

When the lockdown is lifted, we shall be holding minutes of silence to remember those who have died and are suffering from the virus. These will be public rituals of remembrance and reflection. For my mother and me, remembering and recalling is an everyday act, it is what seeking out and living with silence means.

Portraits copyright © Patricia Niven

You may also like to read

At Home With My Mother

In Self-Isolation With My Mother

In Convalescence With My Mother

Social Distancing With my Mother

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Carrie Kitkat permalink
    May 9, 2020

    What a beautifully written post, thank you

  2. Penny Day permalink
    May 9, 2020

    I really enjoyed this. Beautifully written..
    Thank you

  3. Hilary permalink
    May 9, 2020

    A beautifully written and considered piece. I really enjoyed it.

  4. May 9, 2020

    Another evocative and thought provoking piece from Delwar especially those ‘silent silences’ amidst the normal silence of these times………

    I hope the builders next door stay away a little longer for you and your mother’s sanity, I can sympathise as I lived next door to similar destruction and mayhem for over a year, a floating kitchen island is requisite nowadays as you say.
    Tell your mother that the doves will be fine today, probably nibbling on all the crusts and remains of the uneaten VE Day sandwiches!

  5. May 9, 2020

    Such a beautiful piece of writing, and much food for thought. Thank you.

  6. Bob Gladding permalink
    May 9, 2020

    What beautiful, evocative and honest writing. Thank you.

  7. Milo permalink
    May 9, 2020

    A wonderful, thoughtful (and thought provoking) piece.
    Take care the two of you. x

  8. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Thanks for another lovely story from Delwar Hussain. Ridiculous that your soon-to-be neighbours are acrificing a Spitalfields garden for a kitchen island but I feel assured that your mother can perform some magic on the intrusive wall and grow something marvellous on it. Wishing you, your mother and family only the best for continued good health and please keep writing!

  9. May 9, 2020

    A beautiful piece about how we navigate our sometimes very deep and complex differences and yet find shelter in the love we have for each other.

  10. Jenny permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Delwar, both you and the Gentle Author are pitch perfect diarists. I look out the windows of your mother’s home, I smell her garden, I feel for the empty spaces, the benign (and alarming) neglect of abandoned workplaces. I also notice your pigeons for the first time. And miraculously, I can hear the whirring of helicopters slicing the air, but in real life. I live in Australia close by a regional hospital. What different suburbs we inhabit. Sincerely, thanks!

  11. Joanna Godfree permalink
    May 9, 2020

    What a wonderful and enlightening piece. I shall come back to it often. Thank you so much.

  12. May 9, 2020

    You could write a beautiful small book around this time. Note I do not say “should”. Too much of that going on already. Stay safe.

  13. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Delwar – you have certainly done a “proper job” in writing these thought provoking pieces and I hope that your mother will come to realise how special your talents are…

    To my way of thinking there are parallels with the building next door where the special garden and old tree are the equivalent to your unique contributions, whereas the dreaded floating kitchen island (which will probably go out of fashion really quickly anyway) are the equivalent to a so called “proper job”.

    We need people like you and the GA to continue doing the “improper” jobs which enrich our lives.

    Thank you both.

  14. Robin B permalink
    May 9, 2020

    A gorgeous, evocative essay, crafted by a master. Thank you!

  15. May 9, 2020

    Thank you for sharing. This is so beautiful. It evokes so much of what I am feeling on a cold (snow was swirling in the air ..not normal for May) day quarantined far away from Spitalfields in Boston USA.

  16. Catherine permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Thank you for this lovely piece. It will inspire much needed reflection while I am isolated at home by myself.

  17. mick o'leary permalink
    May 10, 2020

    A wonderfully evocative piece of writing. Thank you – such a pleasure to read.

  18. Jill permalink
    May 10, 2020

    Such a pleasure to read. Thank you

  19. May 11, 2020

    What a lovingly written story. Went directly into my heart.
    I expirience the same here in Germany.
    Thank you so much for putting it into such wonderful words.
    Hope to get more from him
    X Karin

  20. Sumathy permalink
    May 11, 2020

    I always enjoy reading about you and your mother, Delwar. Thank you. Will share with students this, to cheer them up!

    From Colombo/Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

  21. May 15, 2020

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I hope you might share about your mother’s garden progress too. I love the silence where I live so I am able to hear all the birdsong. Thank you

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