Susan Allott: The Silence



London, 1997

In a basement flat in Hackney, the telephone rings. It's two in the morning. Isla Green stands in the hallway, pyjamaed, barely awake. She is entirely sober. A good thing, if a little fragile; a little surprising. No tide of shame waits for her, no bloom of pain. She feels clean in her skin, like a schoolgirl. She can taste toothpaste in her throat.


On the third ring she reaches for the receiver. It's Dom's voice she will hear if the answerphone picks up, and his voice will set her back. It's three months since he left and every day she means to wipe the message. She lifts it to her ear just in time.


"Hello?"


It takes her a second to place him. "Dad?"


"I didn't wake you, did I?"


She doesn't know why she's gripping the receiver. Why a trill of fear has sounded in her head. It's good to hear her dad's voice, which is more Australian than her own these days. He's got the time difference wrong, that's all. At the end of the street a police siren starts its upward loop and cuts out. Its blue light flashes silently.


"What time is it there?"


"I don't know." She stretches her free arm above her head, arching her back. In the eight weeks and three days since her last drink, she has been sleeping like the dead.


"Shall I call back later?"


"It's fine. Is everything OK?"


"I wanted to talk to you", he says. "Your mother doesn't know I'm calling. She went into town."


She sits down on the carpet. This is the thing she couldn't put her finger on, that she should have known was wrong from the start. Her dad hasn't called her in the decade she's lived in London. It's her mum who makes the phone calls, leaves messages on the answerphone. Her dad writes letters. He hates the phone.


"What is it?"


"I didn't want you to hear it from your mother. She hasn't taken it well. I wanted to tell you myself."


She drops her head between her knees. She thinks, if he's going to die, I'll need a drink. Cold, practical thoughts: she will finish this call and she will put her clothes on. There's an all-night takeaway at Clapton Pond where they sell six-packs of beer under the counter.


"The police came to see me", he says.


"The police?"


"They're looking for a woman I used to know."


Isla lifts her head. She's sweating. She runs her hand through her damp hair. "What woman?"


"She was a neighbour of ours, back when we first moved to Sydney. You wouldn't remember." He coughs. "It looks like she's been missing a long time. Nobody's seen her in thirty years."


The police car crawls past outside, swinging its blue light across the walls.


"What's this got to do with you?"


"The police think her disappearance is suspicious", he says. "They think I was the last person to see her, before she went missing."


"And were you?" She tries to sound calm. "Were you the last person to see her?"


"I can't have been. She moved away with her husband. I told them there must be some mistake."


He lights a cigarette, exhales. She thinks of Dom, smiling behind a flame.


"Is she dead?"


"They think she must be." His voice is quiet. A bad news voice. "There's no record of her at all, in all that time. Her father died last month, left her most of his estate, but she hasn't come forward. Her brother's been asking around, trying to trace her. He turned up a few things that the police are looking into." He laughs unconvincingly. "One of those things is me."


Isla finds a line of stubble along her shin. She runs her thumbnail over it, back and forth, until it hurts.


"The cops are searching through their records", he says. "They keep records of people who died without being identified."


"What if it turns out she was killed?"


"That would be the worst-case scenario, love", he says. "That would mean a murder enquiry."


"Jesus."


"Look, I don't want you to worry."


"But if you were the last person to see her –"


"I wasn't." He shouts it. "I told you, I wasn't."


Isla rests her head back on her knees. In the part-light she sees unopened post on the doormat, soiled with the tread of her lace-up boots. Her bike, leaning against the wall, its basket stuffed with junk mail. On a hook by the door, the smart coat with the belt that she wears to the office. All of it familiar, unchanged.


"Are you there?"


"I’m here", she says.


"Sorry to snap at you."


"Dad." She feels hot, but her skin is cold. Her pyjamas cling to her. "What was her name?"


He hesitates. "Mandy."


Mandy. Isla smells a hot iron against cotton sheets. Eucalyptus.


"She looked after you a few days a week, before you started school. Back when your mum was working at Hordern & Sons."


"She had a washing line strung out across her yard", Isla says, remembering as she speaks. "I used to hand her the pegs when she hung out her laundry."


"Did you?"


Isla can't recall Mandy's face but she remembers being in her presence. Being liked by someone she liked. An easiness about her company that made other people seem less than her.


"Your mother wants to cancel the party for my birthday", he continues. "She's been upset since the police called round. She can't put it out of her mind."


A door slams in one of the flats upstairs. Raised voices. Isla sits up. She understands now why he called.


"Does she believe you, Dad?"


"I don’t think so. No."


She cradles the phone. New connectors are opening in her brain these past few weeks, fuelled by mineral water and sleep. Unbidden memories startle her on the bus; on the escalator at Bethnal Green; as she sits in traffic on the Essex Road. Her life has an awful clarity now the protective, hungover fug is gone. She sits cross-legged on the carpet, in the middle of her life, in its crisp, central crease. She is thirty-five years old, tall and lean; striking, people say. A body that has been neglected but is still strong, surprisingly resilient. A thick head of hair, cropped short at the back; blonde strands on top that grow up and out, like a dandelion. A woman whose life took a nosedive, who is getting herself together, who needs to be careful. Whose father is silent at the end of the line, asking her wordlessly to come home.


"I could come back for a couple of weeks", she says. It's the only thing to say. "I could help with the party. Get Mum to see sense."


"Could you?"


"I think so. I'm owed some leave."


"That would be wonderful, Isla." His voice has lifted. "What about the apartment? Aren't you buying a place?"


The apartment. A two-bed on Sinclair Road with high ceilings and a Juliet balcony. It's beautiful, well-located and well over budget. They exchange in three weeks. She rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. "I can deal with it over the phone", she says.


"Can they spare you at work?"


"They’ll have to."


"Are you sure this is a good time for you?"


No, she is not sure. She doesn't want to be in Sydney, where there are empty hours to fill and people she hasn't seen in a decade. She wants to sleep and work and hide.


"I’m sure", she says. "It's about time."


Rain falls hard over London as the sun comes up. Isla lies on the surface of sleep, refusing the dreams that want her to be four years old again, walking through rooms that are familiar but not home. She starts the day, dresses herself. Her dad's voice is loud and scared in her head, playing on a loop, acquiring a strain of panic. She makes coffee, tells herself she does not need anything stronger. She is over-thinking this whole thing. He is not lying.



Susan Allott is a British writer who lived and worked in Sydney, Australia in the nineties. She returned to London, and The Silence was written over a period of seven years in which she was working, bringing up children and attending the Faber Academy. She lives in London with her husband and children. The Silence is her first novel, out now in e-book and audio in the UK with the hardback (delayed due to Covid-19) published 6 August and available now to pre-order. Her website is here. You can find her book here and it's also here for sales in the United States.