It began with a muffling. A rounding-off of the edges of sound, of music, of laughter. Of her voice. It wasn’t so bad the first night I noticed it. The night we fought. I took it as a blessing that the screams and curses, the sobbing from under the duvet, the empty side of the bed—they weren’t quite real. But then the next morning, when I said sorry, and she said it back, I still couldn’t make out the words.

Bit by bit, day by day, the music left me. The high notes dwindled to nothing, and when she sang under her breath as she always did in the car, I didn’t hear a word of it. She sang on the way to the doctor that day. She was silent on the way back, even though I wished she’d say something, anything, while I could still hear it.

I couldn’t stand the silence that settled over the house, smothering us. I dug out all the old CDs and tapes, dragged the dusty record player out of the attic. When there’s not much time left to use your hearing in, every second should be filled with sound, and the sound should be beautiful. We sat together night after night, my hand against the speaker, straining to pick out a few notes. The music pulsed beneath my hand, bursting to break free from the cage in which we trapped it.

I cranked up the volume high as I could, but soon I couldn’t even make out that. We needed something louder.

She sang in the car on the way to the arena, and this time she didn’t sing under her breath. I couldn’t hear her, but I could see the smile and the way her mouth moved, the slight crinkle at the corner of her eye whenever she noticed me watching her.

She led me by hand through the biting wind, steering me through the jostling throngs brandishing tickets, the wordless babble, through bright lights and into a silent crowd.

We found our seats, lost among thousands. The light drained away and I clutched at her arm for a moment, gripped with the irrational fear that I was to lose another sense, to lose those little smiles, the little crinkles. I don’t know what she said to me, lip-reading being much harder than it looks, but she wore her reassuring face and I settled back in my seat, leaning against her shoulder, her soft curls tickling my nose.

It started with a whisper, a light wind on a far-off hilltop. It drew closer and whistled over the crowd, while an irregular low throbbing noise—the beat of speech—murmured somewhere over our heads. The wind grew and swept us along with it as it whirled in increasing fury, climbing to new heights, and then, when I thought it could grow no louder, an explosion of light. A momentary lull. A painful screech of feedback, then the screaming hurricane.

Chords. Vocals. Drumbeat. Music! Music, after so long, not thin and strained, on its last legs, but rich, full-blooded, drowning me in song. The drums marched to me, beating hard on my diaphragm, bashing the air from my lungs. Breathless, I leaned forward, heart pounding to the rhythm, my blood electrified.

The maelstrom carried me through the evening, until the very last screech and pop of pyrotechnics, a crescendo of the crowd, then the lights came back on, the wind lowered, and we were one with the river flowing out to the car park.

The world was even quieter by comparison after that. Laughter no longer touched me and neither birdsong, nor the builders working at stupid o’clock across the road could coax me into wakefulness.

I began to forget her voice, but came to know another: the one that emerged when we practiced making words with our hands. Hers was clear and decisive, elegant and graceful, every simple sentence we learned becoming an intricate dance whenever she said it. Even when my hands shook and I threw them down, frustrated, hers were there to guide me through the gesture.

The first time I managed to come up with my own sentence, it was to ask for more music. She stopped dead, not paying attention to the puddle at her feet soaking through her shoes. Unable to shape my words, I spoke, attracting glances from passers-by. I suppose I was louder than I meant to be. I begged to find more concerts, for any music at all, to go somewhere where I could feel sound as solidly as I felt her hand in mine. More crinkles appeared in her face, but these weren’t happy at the corners of her eyes; they were alert, jagged, a rift in her forehead. She said it might damage my hearing further and accelerate the process, but what did it matter? Daily life was like living with the TV dialled almost all the way down. What was the use of hearing, if there was nothing to hear?

We had our first argument in months when we got home, a strange mix of shouting, lip-reading and piecemeal signing. Just one more, I begged. Just one.

She didn’t sing on the way to the next concert, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. The crowds were furious, simmering, close to the boil, or so it seemed. They pushed and shoved, and we had to fight our way to our seats this time. This time, the music stabbed at us, punched at us, got in our faces, grabbed us by the lapel and screamed, “Is this loud enough for you? Are you happy now?”

Battered and bruised, we fought against the tide, fought our way out into the comforting embrace of the silent street. A sound followed me out the hall and down the road, into the car and all the way home. A ringing. Always with me until I went to sleep, and waiting for me when I woke up.

I just couldn’t stay away, though. I needed music to attack me, to stalk me, for it to leave a boot-print on my soul. Jazz tore my ears off and my head inside out. Classical opened me up, plucked my heart from my chest and dragged my heartstrings over the violin. Even with hearing loss, I still couldn’t bring myself to like those country singers she was always so fond of.

We were in a grubby bar watching a local band when I realised something. Though the drummer beat hard on my chest, I couldn’t hear him. My teeth buzzed to the guitar, but that too was silent. There was only the low distant rumble of the bass.

My glass shattered at my feet, but she didn’t notice, bombarded with too many sounds for a soft tinkle to catch her attention. She did notice when I left her side, when she found me outside in the alley, shoulders shaking. There was nothing left to be done for me. It would only be a matter of weeks before this last scrap of sound would fall apart.

There I teetered on the edge of a cliff, my fears and doubts behind me, and still more waiting at the bottom. Was there anything I could have done? Ought I to have listened to her, clung to the scraps and treasured them, preserved them? Did I regret it?

I took a step back. No. To have her hand warm in mine as we jumped to the beat, to be swept along with her until the noise swallowed us alive, to hold her close, a drumbeat in each of our hearts? How could I regret that?

So here we are, on our way to one last show, one last hurrah before the silence takes me. And this time, she’s singing.

Zetetic separator

—Jessica Holmes grew up in the North-West of England, reading anything she could get her hands on and telling stories to anyone who would listen. She took up writing full-time when she left college on the advice of her doctor. When not writing, she doodles and daydreams her next story.

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