Exile in Silence

Black and White Photography by Eddie O'Bryan

The room felt stiff and forbidding. It denied me the luxury of distance and I was glad to have been left alone, if only for a few minutes. I searched for something to distract me and my gaze inadvertently fell upon his coat. It lay on the edge of the sofa, an abandoned shell with a fallen arm extended as if in supplication towards the ground. Lonesome and drab without its owner wrapped in its folds. He wore his clothes like his moods, with deceptive carelessness. 

The edge of a book inched out of the depths of the coat pocket. So this must be his escape. Stooping over aged pages, oblivious to the rest of the world, he would detach himself from all concerns and flee to another world. One of his own choosing. I tried to guess whether it would be a biography or a work of history. Perhaps a novel, although knowing him, that seemed unlikely. Before I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity, I heard the door open behind me. He was back.

I had grown accustomed to his silence over the past few months. At first I found it unsettling. I tried to reach out, make him speak. It mattered little what he would say. No accusation, no reproach could equal this continued absence of sound. I was reduced to searching for pathetic substitutions for our former tête-à-têtes. The  only times I heard his voice these days was when I tiptoed to the door of his office to eavesdrop on his conversation with others. 

He was punishing me. I knew that he would never make me leave, but he did his best to make it difficult not to. At first I stayed because I hoped he would relent, certain that he couldn’t go on ignoring me indefinitely. I was wrong. He had made an art of it and I was nearing the breaking point.

On reentering the room he had settled into the armchair by the window, his body turned away from me so that I could see very little of his profile. Light sifted through the blinds in jagged lines: the portrait of a shadow-striped reader.

“What is it that you are reading?” I asked, cutting through the silence.

He looked up, his expression… he had the look of a dreamer that had been suddenly awakened from their sleep, but upon whom reality had not quite settled. He paused. He blinked. A hand moved towards his hair and ruffled it slightly as if enquiring, attempting to guess what the question had been. I moved towards the sofa and extracted the book from the pocket of the coat.

“Ah. It is Huxley,” I answered for him.

A novel after all. Aldous Huxley. It was a good name. One could not help but be persuaded by whatever an Aldous might tell them. I turned the book in my hands. It was an old edition and looked as if it had been read many a time. The pages had acquired a rusty hue and the spine was not altogether firm. It had a mild scent of tobacco.  

“A favourite of yours?” I asked, turning one page and then another, aware that I was being observed as I did so.

He shrugged noncommittally.

Words swam soundlessly between us. He would not speak. Brave New World. I knew of it, but had never taken the trouble to read it. I wished I had. In my desperate attempt to cross over the chasm, this may have been a bridge. I believed that familiarity with something he cared about would have anchored me back into his life. Just like me… to depend on something so useless and fail even at that.

“What is it about?” I persisted, my eyes fixed on the page before me without being able to take in its contents.


His answer startled me. Its existence as much as its content. I expected to see a challenge in his eyes when I finally dared look at him, but I could not read his expression. I knew what he would read in mine: defeat.

For an instant only a compact formed between us around that one word. It hurt to hear it. It summed up my present state of existence. Somehow, it encompassed all that I had felt, been, for the past few months. He had made me feel that way without even trying. Did he know it? I looked away.

Moments later he was at my side. Not to embrace me. No. I had lost that privilege. I thought he wanted to reclaim his volume and offered to give it back, but that wasn’t it either. He shook his head to indicate that he didn’t want it and reached out for his coat instead.

At times I wondered whether he planned his actions or whether there was a cruel coincidence to the things he did. He fished out of the coat pocket the lighter I had gifted him the day after “the incident”. It was that clichéd gesture that gave me away in the end. Had I been a man, I might have bought him flowers. He knew me well enough to guess what it meant, and once suspicion found a foothold, it did not give way until he had it confirmed.

He lit a cigarette. It suited him. That vice. I watched him draw in the smoke and exhale it. He watched me watch him. Would that be it… a word once in a while and silence forevermore? Inadequacy. Succinct and to the point.

“It’s a dystopia. Or it was intended to be one. The way we’re going it may as well be a blueprint,” he said.

I waited for him to continue. 

“The main character is an outcast who cannot or will not conform to the happy world of endless consumption and promiscuity.”

A turn of the head, a swift glance and he had caught me out. I wanted to laugh, but did not have the strength. He may be mocking me. It was too painfully close, too coincidental for it to be true.

“And what is his solution?” I asked.


I couldn’t tell whether he was speaking of me or of himself.


Daily Prompt: Land of Confusion

40 thoughts on “Exile in Silence

  1. A brilliant response to the prompt, Vic. You convey so well the human capacity for inflicting pain, and the capacity for enduring it, and coming back for more – a kind of desperate masochism.

    • I wish I could say that it was the fruit of my imagination alone, but unfortunately I have been a witness to self-destructive relationships in my time, even if from the sidelines. Ah… the dark fascination of mutual annihilation.
      At times I am concerned that I have spent so much time and effort brining my characters to a dark place that it may impossible to rescue them.
      Thank you, Lee-Anne.

      • I don’t think so, Vic, as you very realistically and believably take them to the dark place, allowing the reader to feel in a visceral way their pain…I’m sure you can rescue them (well, 1 or 2!)

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  3. Hehe, I liked the legs, too.

    Two things about this: The level of detail here is good. It’s not too much, and it puts me in the scent. Second, that is a very nice riff on Huxley. He really nails it here:

    “The main character is an outcast who cannot or will not conform to the happy world of endless consumption and promiscuity.”

    And I like the way he phrases it to suggest that he’s commenting on the real world.

    Just came to poke around in your archive for Friday discussion material, but the image and first line grabbed me, so I had to read the whole thing. 😉

    • Oh, I am glad to hear that it gripped you. I’ve been working on my hooks and it seems to be paying off. Thank you for your feedback, Gene’O. Very helpful. I do like to add the detail in light brushstrokes so it is all the more pleasing to know that my efforts did not go unnoticed.
      When I created my male character I had a very good idea of what type of books I would want him delving into. Considering the context, Huxley was too good to pass by. He happens to be a favourite of mine.

  4. Orgy Porgy… I used to teach that novel. Then I got accused of being racist because one African American girl in one class found it too difficult for her and complained about my teaching “White folks books.” Ironic as we’d just read Fahrenheit 451 in which Montag is told that one reason books are banned is because they have the capacity to hurt peoples’ feelings… So Brave New World has retired and given over to The Phantom Tollbooth. That isn’t what I meant to write here — just came out.

    I love the powerful way you use the word “inadequacy.” Horrible feeling, especially in a love relationship. Lovely writing.

    • Orgy Porgy indeed. When I first read the novel I couldn’t believe how many of Huxley’s dystopic scenarios have become a reality, or very nearly so. I am sorry that you no longer teach this novel. I have a few favourites and this one is certainly amongst them. Students ought to be challenged in school, made to think – otherwise what is the point? It can’t be all about passing exams. And if there is a book that does not fit into the “white folks books” then this is it. It transgresses all boundaries. I would be surprised to hear of anyone reading it (with any degree of understanding) and failing to see our foibles reflected in its pages.
      I have written a post about inadequacy recently in another post… I dare say it is not a topic to be easily exhausted. Thank you, Martha.

      • I just did not want to fight “they system.” She went to my boss and complained about my racism. Two or three years later I ran into at the university where I teach and to which she transferred. She apologized. She was tutoring for Equal Opportunity Program Students and had learned in her university classes and through tutoring how much different the demands in the university were from those in the community college. She then thanked me — but it’s exhausting to have to contend with this day in and day out, fighting with students on behalf of THEIR learning while knowing that the powers that be pander thinking they’re actually “helping” minority students by teaching Chinua Acebe instead of Aldous Huxley. I’m not alone in this battle, but as my generation leaves the field to those where were never taught the tough stuff, well, O Brave New Fahrenheit 451 World.

      • I have to say that I astounded not only that she complained given the context, but that “the system” as you say, made the decision to substitute Huxley on such a weak basis. It is good of her to apologise, but the damage was done and that is something that cannot be undone with ease. Fahrenheit 451 it is then and on their heads be it.

      • The class was Fahrenheit 451 then Brave New World. I really wanted them to see how sterilizing culture (the whole plan for which is explicitly stated in F 451) in the “interests” of “diversity” would result in a world where there could not be individuals. My goal was to use the easier to-read-book to provide a key to the more complex work. For most students it was a very exciting experience. It’s just ironic that the politicization of education has resulted in this; seeding the way for a BNW or a F 451 reality. There’s no more pro-REALdiversity book I know than Brave New World. Her allegations of my racism were based on the fact that she couldn’t understand Huxley’s language and that he was a white British (colonialist) writer. She was TAUGHT to think this way, to look for racism in every white person and to categorically disdain dead white male writers.

      • Oh, I didn’t realise that you taught Fahrenheit 451 too, I thought you mentioned it as a simile for what the system (and in part the individual concerned) were doing by taking Brave New World off the course.
        I like the way you structured the course. I would have been delighted to be a part of it.
        By that girl’s logic I ought to have refused to read the Russians in original because the language was a part and certainly a means of oppression for the system under which I was born. However true that may be, it was also a luxury to be able to have those treasures open for me. To reject the gift of reading and learning from the past (very F451)… I will never understand how anyone could make that choice consciously.

      • That girl was taught her “logic.” American education has become so politicized in the past thirty years that there is almost NO content for its own sake but only as it relates to some political agenda. I’ve worked with people who believe and say, “Everything is political.” In recent years the dead white male writers have returned but not because of what they say (that is negated by the accident of their having been born white in the west) but because of the way they frame arguments. I’m haunted by Cicero’s words as they were carved into the lintel of the entry to the library of the university where I got my undergraduate degree, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” I think that sums up American politics right now. I intend to take the advice of Philip K. Dick in “Man in the High Castle” retire to a remote place. 🙂 Have you read his work?

      • I know of the novel, although I am yet to read it. It is about a fictive-America where slavery is legal once again, isn’t it?

      • Sort of — it’s America if Germany and Japan had won the war. Japan gets the west coast and Germany the east coast but the middle with the mountains and desert is still free. A resistance is building there. It’s philosophically very strange, but I like it. My favorite PKD book is Galactic Pot Healer. For an artist, it’s a very inspiring fable. It’s up to an artist to repair God.

      • Will add it to my reading list. It is getting rather long and I should really go book-shopping soon. (Amazon is not paying its taxes so I’m giving it a miss for a while). Galactic Pot Healer sounds fascinating. May push it further up that list. Thank you for the recommendations, Martha.

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  8. Very subtly told but with such powerful feeling . Social commentary, romance and feelings exposed in a lovely read. It feels like part of a bigger book. Really enjoyed this.x

    • You have intuited right, it was part of a bigger book. Unfortunately it became a victim of the re-write as it no longer fitted into the narrative after I made a few changes in the plot. It is heartbreaking killing one’s darlings, but I have to be ruthless at times.
      I was so pleased to read your comment, as it reassures me that I have drawn my characters strongly enough for them to come alive in the context of a small fragment. As for you mentioning social commentary: it’s been a long-standing wish of mine to be able to do this and do it subtly enough so that it may not appear that I am preaching to the reader. I’ve had a tough time of it and had to cut away many a fragment I liked, because it stood out too much. Perhaps at last I’m getting there.
      Thank you so much for your feedback.

  9. Have to agree with scottishmomus here. Great commentary on the Human capacity to use power to inflict suffering. Quite chilling. Love the line, ‘He wore his clothes like his moods, with deceptive carelessness.’

  10. As always, brilliant and stabbing insights into interpersonal relationships, regardless of their painful connotations. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Thank you, truly. I have promised myself to dare go to places that are not always comfortable and may often reveal truths we would much rather not know. It is a little like your camping trip to see Venus rising: it may lie outside one’s comfort zone but unless we take the plunge, we can not hope to have the things we want most.

    • A double excellent? Thank you, Kelsi. This is a scene from the novel I am revising, but unfortunately it did not make the cut during the re-write, as the plot took an unexpected turn. I was sorry to have to let it go.

    • Thank you. I am very pleased to hear that it drew your in. As I was telling Gene’O I’ve been working on my hooks and the feedback is very encouraging. 🙂

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