In a room in Dublin, on a wet Friday in February 2020, a collection of people gathered to read, sing, listen and share at the Irish Writers Centre’s Takin’ the Mic. The evening was a beautiful one, and much treasured; not least given all that would immediately follow in the wake of the arrival of COVID-19.
When I took to the mic that night to read my new short story, The Lost Words, I had no idea that it would be my last in-person performance for a live audience for some time, and it remains so as I type.
If you had asked me the following day how it went, I would have said there was a great turn out. That there was a strong variety of readers. That there was a lovely atmosphere. That it was wonderful to see family and friends there. That I was so grateful for the compliments I’d received from listeners and readers alike about my piece.
All of this is true. But now, one year on, after everything we have experienced since, these are the things I want to tell you about that night.
As I read my own story to a captive room, I remember with a deep intensity, the silence. The sound of my own voice speaking aloud the words I’d written – created in my mind, formed in my throat, and released into the air we shared, to paraphrase one part of it. Dust particles catching the light by my hands as I held my sheet of paper; as they floated, and I read. The light lending a transluscency to that page. The strength of it, and how it obscured the audience gathered to listen into a collective haze of attentive faces. Their proximity to one another, which then signified a full room, but now means so much more, because it is something we cannot have. Life side by side. Laughing. Listening. Sharing a communal experience. Glimpsing the faces of my family and friends, and being heartened by their very presence; I’ll forever be profoundly grateful for that, and for them.
Perhaps I can relive this in such detail on foot of its (albeit temporary) finality. Perhaps it’s that I have immortalised the essence of it to sustain me until I can be among others in that way, and perform again.
While in lockdown, I’ve decided to give this story new life with an accompanying piece of film I made especially for it. In the absence of many of our usual diversions, we have turned to nature, and I do the same here.
You can watch the film and listen to me reading the story via my YouTube Channel where you’ll also have the option to turn on the subtitles or read it yourself in the description.
The Lost Words
By Emma Hynes
My perception of reality was always different to yours. It’s why I needed to leave the landing light on, and you didn’t. Why, on the sunniest of days, I saw the sinewy trunk against which we leaned as a threat. Why I asked myself, what’s to stop it coiling its branches around our two bodies, until it’s too tight, and we can’t breathe, and you say something final into my hair that I can’t hear?
“I missed it,” I would say, as your bones became subsumed in mine, “I missed that last thing you said. What was it?”
As I sit outside your room, and wait for them to finish, I am struck by the fact that this is the memory I have of us in this moment. I think of my fixation then on the last words you would ever say to me at a time when there were so many more yet to hear.
The first were whispered.
“Is there anyone sitting here?” you asked me, in the lofty reading room of the National Library.
One of my books had strayed onto the next desk. It gave the impression that the seat in which you were about to sit may very well have been taken.
“No,” I said. That was my first to you. Negative, though I was conveying the positive.
It was after that, when you were always next to me in some form, that the middle words began. The interim vowels, sounds, strings of letters elongated into sentences by your wet tongue. Your lips. Created in your mind, formed in your throat, and released into the air we shared. I wish I could remember them all. There were so many of them. But while there were ones I know I listened to, even if I can’t recall them, it’s the lost words I would now claw the earth of that forest to find.
Your calls from the part of the house in which you knew I could never hear you. The things you said to people who were not me as I watched you from the other side of so many rooms til I caught your eye and we both smiled. Even the mutterings under your lovely breath in the face of my irrational behaviour at which I would snap, “What?” and you would say “Nothing,” and that would be the end of it. And I would never know. What you said.
Yes, the lost words. The ones that fell through the cracks in times of distraction, when you had already begun to speak and I had missed the start and knew it was too late to stop you and say, “I missed that last thing you said. What was it?” And you would go on, thinking I’d been listening to it all. That I understood. It did feel like a deception, but it allowed me to enjoy the actual act of you speaking. It was then that I could focus on the way in which these words you’d made left your body for the sky. They put a small votive in each of your eyes. They took your hands and made them move in shapes and contortions choreographed by the consonants conveyed for me alone to hear. They made you laugh and I feel it now like a long note played backwards, on back through the hours, the days, the years, all the way back.
As I look at the empty seat beside me in this vacant corridor while I wait for nothing, I realise that your reality was the right one. But there are no more suns, or trees, or days to fix that now. I think of that first time. Of all the firsts. When this is the time of the lasts. I see this chair, and I think of you and there is only one reality now.
Is there anyone sitting here?