I live in a tenement and I am surrounded by people, often just a few feet away, but they are unseen and mostly unheard behind thick walls – so near and yet so far. They are above and below me, and on both sides of me, and I am reminded that we are all together in isolation as I listen to muffled lives and fragments of dampened daily rituals played out through old, thick walls and ceilings. For the most part, I hear little, but, if I am swathed in silence, I might hear a running tap, the recognisable noise made by the drawing of curtains, a vacuum cleaner hum, someone coughing. Late at night, through my bedroom ceiling, I hear the scratching of paws as a dog runs across an uncarpeted floor. The sound has become as comforting in its regularity as the music that preludes the shipping news. Every other day, through the wall, comes an animated voice speaking in French on the phone, presumably exchanging what constitutes news these days, news from here to there. The American girl has moved out. I miss her singing. She knew all the Broadway songs and had one of those matching Glee voices with a trumpet in her belly. ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair’ – that was my favourite. She sang it with a skip and a high-kick and a giggle, as though there was someone else there and it was a joke for two. Only when I am in the box room (which I’ve optimistically but entirely unrealistically renamed ‘my study’) do I hear an electric guitar being played. He’s not lousy – which is what Tom Hanks said of his own collection of short stories, ‘they’re not lousy’, by which I think he was telling us he thought they were good. Mmmm. Back to my guitar player, he’s not good, but he’s not lousy either. And I don’t even know if he’s a he. I meet fewer people on the stairs these days. It stands to reason I suppose, given that we are all taking fewer trips out, but I still hear the baby crying as I pass the middle door on the first floor. And I don’t take in parcels for the girl upstairs anymore. Amazon used to leave me something for her once a week, but she must be home all the time now, that or she has stopped ordering. I know when when anyone leaves as the whole building seems to rattle when the main door slams behind them. And the outside noises are welcome guests during these warmer days of open windows. An overture of industriousness: digging and scraping and electric hedge clipping played over a light percussion of birdsong. Meanwhile my industry extends to listening. I believe I can even hear my plants grow.
And the days are not full enough, by Ezra Pound
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.