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The Noise Is Mine

Author's Note: This short story is about feeling extremely out of place while experiencing a significant life event. In it, I explore the roles of nature and the senses in remembering and connecting. It's also about expressing emotions and what is or isn't deemed 'acceptable' at family occasions. 'The Noise Is Mine' was long-listed for the European Writing Prize in 2023, under its previous name 'Funeral Dance'.



The kitchen table vibrates. Cold, congealed porridge stares back at me grayly from its bowl. My frozen fingers are wrapped around my cracked coffee mug, they don’t seem to belong to me any more. I stick my tongue out at my mobile phone, which is petitioning for me to leave the house, with its insistent flashing and buzzing. I programmed it to do this, setting multiple calendar reminders, yet I deeply resent how it mocks me today.

 

I am too weird to leave the house right now,” I tell it aloud. The handset’s screen and its disembodied voice begin to recommend helplines and links to websites about agoraphobia.            “No, no, no!” I berate my handset loudly, and flip it over with a thunk, forcing the phone to lie face down on the table, its assorted lenses staring vacantly at the kitchen ceiling.

 

Porridge abandoned, I begin to create a new breakfast from the contents of various brown glass bottles and blister packs: St John’s Wort, beta-blockers, Rescue Remedy, Sertraline, and a small collection of dehydrated liberty caps. I consume each element of the unconventional meal methodically, washing it all down with cold coffee and chewed-up hangnails.

 

At length, I finally do leave my flat and as I walk I taste the rain. Petrichor, car fumes, and second-hand cigarette smoke flood my lungs. I dawdle, enjoying the dank day and noticing the increasing heaviness of my dress as it soaks up puddles. I can hear the church’s distant bell. My pace quickens. Black-clothed humans gather and protect, like ravens, dark umbrellas for wings. As I get closer, I smell pine, strangers’ perfume, incense, and candle smoke.

 

The bright, poisonous, yew tree guarding the graveyard gates has lived here, regally, for hundreds of years. It symbolises rebirth, resurrection, and immortality. It has the job of warding away evil spirits: a tradition adopted from Druids and moulded into Christianity, as with so many lores. We – the yew and I – have passed one another on a multitude of occasions. Today, however, I meet this ancient yew as if for the first time. We connect. It breathes deeply and noticeably and then takes me by surprise as it slowly begins to dance. Its branches move quite gently at first, almost imperceptibly but with rhythm, and I respond by mirroring its subtle gestures with my body, head, and fingers. We ignore the swelling congregation. The church bells seem to slow down and fade. A large black shiny car has pulled up on the quiet village street outside the ancient walls. I keep moving gently.

 

“I want to stay here with you,” I tell the tree, confidingly, as my fellow mourners huddle towards the large oak door. I touch the yew’s trunk, placing the flat of my hand against its bark and tuning in to its breath. The yew leans softly towards me, and we continue to be locked in a slow dance with one another, transfixed and accompanied by the organ’s melancholy notes, which emanate from the church’s depths.

 

I sense that the yew is offering itself up to me and so I ask if I might accept one of its branches to bring inside:

 

Would that feel all right?

 

It bends towards me, acquiescent, and I thank it quietly as I break one thin, pretty, branch apart from the rest of the tree. Concerned about any hurt I may be causing, I kiss the yew’s open wound with my lipsticked mouth and become quite enchanted by the bright berries adorning its dark green tips. I choose a single berry, dissect it, and taste the soft pink-red flesh, avoiding the deadly seed. It’s sweet and good.

 

I have to leave you now,” I tell the tree reluctantly as the church bells resume clanging in my ears and older relatives fake cough in my direction. Clutching the branch firmly in my left hand and brushing raindrops off my curls with my right, I turn and move deliberately towards the large open door, heels of my boots clicking and splashing satisfyingly up the path, yew needles lining both sides, like a rural version of a red carpet. I sense its magic. My Nana walked this path on saints’ days and Sundays for decades, mischievous and kind in equal measure. I can feel her here with me as I finally reach the door, I’m late and muddy but not yet scolded. I don’t think she wants to come in, she’s—uncharacteristically—not ready either. Nana always liked to be ready and prepared for everything, sparkling and twinkly, smelling of soap and neatly combed, with a packet of mints in her bag and spare clean handkerchiefs.

 

“We gotta do this Nana,” I whisper, “C’mon.” Speaking not to the wooden box being bourne slowly up the familiar path by formal strangers, but to her spirit, ethereal and warm.

 

Brandishing my branch, I attempt to enter the church, but an unfamiliar woman with blue-rinsed hair thrusts a leaflet out, stopping me in my tracks. I smile and give her 20p from my coat pocket but she looks confused, continuing to offer me the leaflet, which has a photo of Nana’s face on it. What does the blue-rinsed woman need? I fumble and find a pound coin but she looks even more confused and presses Nana’s photocopied face into the hand that isn’t holding a branch. I look up and immediately ignore my mother’s silent flappy gesticulations from an overcrowded pew across the aisle, instead moving towards my favourite cousin Judy, at the back of the building. She has a face like an angel and smells of cinnamon. I intend to sit and nestle into her, but her cherub-like son is already hiding his pink-cheeked face in her long skirt. Cousin Judy kisses my cheek and gently takes my branch from me, placing it on the stone windowsill so carefully that neither I nor the branch mind too much being separated for now. Singing and incense waft around me and everyone rises.

 

Nana had a sweet sense of humour and has, my cousin whispers, requested the Archers’ theme tune, from Radio 4, to accompany us all out of the service at the very end. Apparently, there was some sort of altercation with the vicar about Barwick Green not being a religious tune but my grandmother, who was well aware of her imminent demise, held up her end of the argument with weighty donations to the church roof fund, and insistence that she’d listened to The Archers for decades with reverence. So I’m not surprised when the service eventually concludes and I hear its jolly tones, ringing out across the pulpit, as the coffin disappears, once again, into the cold porch. However, I am surprised to hear loud laughter bellowing out, over the top of the familiar tune. Loud laughter coming from… my own open mouth… increasing in volume uncontrollably as the faces of fifty or so quietly tearful mourners turn to look at me like sad little lollipops.


“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…”


The noise is mine but unowned. I listen to it curiously without a sense of connection to my voice… I can’t find the ‘off’ switch to my volume or to the shaking of my body. I mean it IS funny… this jolly Radio 4 melody marking such a solemn moment, macabre in some ways, but my laughing seems to be the jarring sound, not the clunky CD player ringing out the familiar: ‘doo de doo de doo de doo’s of the well-known signature tune. I remember hearing it at my Nana’s house throughout the decades: from being bounced on her knee in my infancy, to my teenage revision at her dining room table; to more recent days, as I helped to wash her hair and apply cream to her hands and feet. She’d often hum this tune early each morning as she opened the curtains. As age crept up on her, she’d also insisted on hearing the repeats of each episode too.

 

My laughter crescendos and tails off. Someone is crying now. Really noisily. Ah. Also me.

 

In certain cultures, crying to mark and celebrate death is highly encouraged and respected, in fact, professional people are hired to lead the mourning. Mourners show status, they can embody goddesses at funerals, and their role is respected and powerful. Yet here, my noisy mourning seems to stimulate shared embarrassment among Nana Ethel’s friends and relatives, who all appear to have their collective shit together. Even those with dementia. They are stoic, silent, and calm. What are they thinking as they gaze on my snotty face? Does my streaked mascara make them feel discomfort? Is my wet hair unacceptable?           


My angelic cousin Judy is gently holding on to one of my shoulders with one hand and cuddling her little son, who’s balanced on her hip, with the other. She’s carrying a huge bag brimming with expressed milk and eco nappies and is still pulling off elegance and composure. Cousin Judy steers me slowly out of our church pew. We get washed into the steady flow of black-clad humans in the aisle, and I turn sharply and begin to wrestle against the tide to return to the pew and retrieve my yew wand. Wading through elderly women, dummy-mouthed toddlers, and stodgy middle-aged husbands, I manage to get back to the shore of the stone windowsill and reunite with my branch while the congregation spills out into the autumn afternoon.

 

“It’s ok, it’s ok,” my cousin has reappeared at my side and I’m unsure if she’s saying these soothing words to her little son, or me or herself. The funeral flowers in the window where Nana used to sit each week have pollen-filled stamens and an overpowering scent. They pulse and breathe. Distracted, I stroke them softly and they respond to me. 

 

My mother appears. She takes a breath and emits words staccato: “We don’t think you should come to the wake.”

 

I silently nod. They don’t think I should come to the wake. This is true. Her statement is not incorrect. But is she banning me? Denying me the chance to refuse tiny triangles of white bread with margarine and Cheddar cheese in? Am I barred from helping pour tea from hot metal pots for unfamiliar mouths?

 

I begin to hum the Archers’ theme tune, which morphs into me laughing and crying simultaneously. To steady myself, I hold one hand in front of my face and move my fingers slowly, I notice the pattern of whorls and loops. I’m fascinated. I remember to breathe.

 

The constant feeling of being unwanted, which accompanies me daily, has manifested itself. My crime? Attempting to balance out my mood. In the same way that others may iron a shirt for such an occasion—and, perhaps, scorch the fabric in their nervous grief state—well, I just go and accidentally microdose a little too generously. No biggie.

 

An hour ago, the wake was what I was determined to avoid. Yet now, if I don’t get my share of the collective post-ceremony awkwardness, well, my day will have failed.

 

With a new-found sense of purpose, I navigate my way out of the ancient building and quicken my step in the direction of Nana’s house. I am Maleficent, the unwanted witchy guest. I wield my branch and move determinedly towards the wake. Obstacles appear to get out of my way along the puddled streets, and the weak November sunlight begins to shine on me through the clouds. A rainbow. I stop. I am soaked, cold, and crying.

 

An arm appears around me. The new vicar.

 

Let’s get you a cup of tea, eh?” she says, kindly, as she unlatches the little gate to the house.

Roses are still hanging on in Nana’s garden. And so am I.

1 Comment


Lestrange Hermione
Lestrange Hermione
Jul 05

The story sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing it and geometry dash scratch which is amazing.

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