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The Culture of Gossip

These walls can talk

The Culture of Gossip

There was indeed such a thing as a Culture of Gossip. In the small town where Sarah lived, it was hard to conduct a private life. She herself was much given to secrecy, and did not, on the whole, care to have her activities bruited abroad: not that they were wrong as such (or at least, not many of them), but that they were hers. The whole town seemed to be a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. When she went to the weekly market, she heard whispers following her wherever she went. Some were remarks she herself had made: “I’ve always preferred butter”, “those footnotes were a disgrace”, “he never loved me as much as I loved him”, “it’s more funerals than weddings these days”, “there’s one thing worse than not getting your heart’s desire, and that’s getting it”.  And there were judgemental remarks too, that she had not made; “being clever didn’t make her happy, did it?”, “she’s not as funny as she thinks she is”, “if she were taller, it might not be so bad”, “I saw her sneaking into that hotel in the afternoon.” But when she turned round to confront the speakers, there was no one nearby. No-one’s mouth was moving, no-one looked unduly concerned, or interested in her doings. What was going on? Had paranoia come upon her at last?

She started to pay attention to the buildings. The noise in the high street was unusually ambient: soft, insistent, varied. Sarah had thought that the windows in the old shop were rattling in their frames: but when she put her ear to them, she realised that the prevailing south-westerly was making them sing. The doors too, were banging in the breeze and making a murmur all their own. And the staircases: them most of all. A strange howling sound.

Sarah became extra alert and vigilant, and realised that when she put her ear to the walls or to the door jambs, each of them seemed to have a different utterance, and sang phrases to a little tune. The windows were (as you might expect) voluble about ways of seeing, and vouchsafed all sorts of ideas that she did not expect: “putting a frame round something gives it form. She never did that.” The doors all talked about closure (they liked their little joke), and about the myth of the fresh start. One of the doors, which was clearly intellectually ambitious (it had been the door to a bookshop once, after all), quoted the end of Kafka’s Before the Lawcourts: “Sarah, this door was always meant for you. And now I’m going to close it.” But the staircases were the most disturbing of all. Both the straight ones and the winding ones were preoccupied by the idea of progress; “she thought that up was the best way to go. But she might have thought about going down.”

Well! As Sarah came to the end of the little street and into the suburbs and countryside beyond, she realised that the trees and the animals had been talking about her as well. The advice they gave was more to her liking. But as she perambulated along, she began to yearn for silence: for an end to advice and judgement. The great stillness was what she needed, what would heal her. And so she began to shut the voices down one by one, hoping that in the end she would hear just the one that came from her. It might not, of course. But she had to try.

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