HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


The Silence

A long time ago, when Ray started at the quarry, he couldnít even budge the sacks of sand and gravel let alone lift them. He couldnít even get the crowbar underneath the boulders let alone budge them. He tangled the chains and couldnít grip the links that slid through his fingers, stripping skin. The other men in the crew would stand and watch him, laughing; but they said nothing and never offered to help. It was fifty percent technique, but he had to find that out for himself. Ray grappled and pulled and heaved and shoved and wept while they looked on, and after theyíd moved away to get on with their own work.
It wasnít that though. He learned to curse the sacks and to throw them like corpses onto the flatbeds of the trucks alongside those of the other men. He learned to tell by their shapes which way the boulders would roll or tumble, the angles of their centres of gravity. All of them were predisposed to topple in some particular direction. He learned to lever them just so, but still it would take only just a little less than everything he had to give to shift them onto the waiting scoop of the front loader. He learned to swing the chains and loop them like a coil of rope.
It was the silence of the other men that he had no techniques for dealing with, neither to break nor to endure. For they did not speak, neither to him nor to each other, but worked in silence, sat in silence, even during the long drawn out hour of the lunch break. Each one in his separate place with his flask and sandwiches. None of them took a magazine or a newspaper. None of them brought in a radio. They spoke of nothing they had seen or heard or done: no sport, no hobby, no antics of children, no politics, no domestic quarrels, no pleasures or pains, no fears or hopes, no sexual exploits. They had nothing to report, and greeted his attempts at conversation, his good mornings and good nights, with baffled, silent incomprehension, with hostility. It was as if they spoke a foreign language, except for that they did not speak at all, as if words might dislodge an avalanche of angers, recriminations, frustrations, resentments, which once started no-one might stop.
Above the fresh peeled skin of the quarry face curlew called as they climbed the sky to glide down again, and lapwing swung like kites on tugged strings, and the wind sung a low harmonic through the bristle grasses.
The men sat in the slate-walled, slate-flagged, slate- roofed crew room and drank their drinks and ate their food like shedded cattle chewing cud, not even responding when one spilled a drink or dropped a sandwich, though they would watch with slow unblinking eyes. The second week he took in a book; read it at the morning break and at mid-day. They watched with disbelief, trepidation even, as if he had carried in among them an unexploded bomb. They watched as if watching enough might make it disappear, and he began to think that they watched everything that way: him, themselves, the sacks, the boulders, the trucks. But he could never tell whether they watched in hope or in fear of such disappearing. And the last man out swept clear the room of the dust and debris that was left behind them, which the wind lifted at the door step and carried away.
The work was hard and unremitting and each man found his own pace that he could sustain until the job was done. Their hands were rough and hard, never mind the thick gloves they wore, which in any case were threadbare and holed at the finger ends. They wore thick trousers and corduroy jackets. It was before the days of fluorescent tabards and company issue safety boots, and orange plastic helmets, so they wore on their feet what they had and went bareheaded. Pale dust of the pounded stone settled on them, making their dark clothes dirty white and circling their eyes and coating their tongues, and sometimes they coughed and spat into scraps of cloth that once had been handkerchiefs, which may have been why they did not speak.
They take some getting used to, the foreman had said, and he didnít speak much either, save to order them to move this or shift that while the day lasted, before vanishing among the pyramids of sacks, the hills of chippings and slag, the jumbles of boulders, on errands of his own. And, watch out for Gorach, he said, he can be awkward since his girl left him.
Gorach came over after the lunch break when only he and Ray were left in the crew room, and stood with his legs apart over Ray where he sat reading his book.
What díyou bring that fucking thing in for? Ray looked up and closed his book.
Iím reading it, he said.
I can see that, Gorach said.
Itís a book of short stories, Ray said.
Stories are for kids.
I like them too.
Youíre fucking weird, Gorach said. Ray opened the book again and continued to read. I said, youíre fucking weird, Gorach repeated. Then Ray closed the book and slipped it into his jacket pocket and stood up. His face was only inches from the other manís. You have no idea how fucking weird I am, he said.
And that was true.
Then Ray seemed to be about to step forward and Gorach moved aside and as Ray passed him Gorach said, I could fucking break you with one hand behind my back, and Ray, stopping and turning at the door, said, and what difference would that make?
After that nothing was said for several days, but the silence had been changed. Nobody looked at anybody else anymore, except at Ray, who still said good morning, and good night, and, if he had to infringe or intrude upon somebodyís personal space, which was always bigger than you might expect it to be, he would say, excuse me.
Then Gorach told everyone to fuck off, half half-way through the lunch break one day and said, not you, to Ray who had begun to stand up. Ray had been reading his book, which he slipped into his pocket and stood with his hand on waiting for Gorach to say more. Then Gorach handed over a small blue envelope which had been opened but which still had the folded letter inside, and said, read this for me, and, if you fucking laugh, Iíll kill you.
A sack wouldnít do you much harm unless somebody swung it at you and knocked you off your feet into the path of something, or over an unprotected edge, but if one of the boulders, which were used for ornamental rockeries, or to fill steel cages as rock armour, or to close off lay-byes and entrances to tracts of land upon which motor vehicles were no longer permitted, if one of them fell upon you, it could crush a hand or foot or even a leg, and you might find yourself unable to work for months, or even years and, back then, with no hope of compensation unless you could prove it had been somebody elseís fault. And when Ray saw such things happen, he turned away and nodded his head, but said nothing.
So Ray took the envelope and removed the letter and unfolded it and read it silently, before refolding it and slipping it back inside the envelope, which he handed back to Gorach. And he didnít laugh at all, but turned away and left the crew room, and Gorach, holding the envelope in his hand, watched him go.

Brindley Hallam Dennis writes short stories. He lives on the northern edge of England within sight of three mountain tops and a sliver of Solway Firth. He blogs at BHD and me and can be found on vimeo and twitter at BHDandMe.