by Damien G. Walter
When great uncle Peter came to live with our family in the house by the sea I asked my mother why it was he never spoke. My mother explained that great uncle Peter had always been silent, that when he was born he came out without even a scream. Great uncle Peter could have only been young when the family; his mother and father and his sister Ranyevskya – my great grandmother, came over the sea from the old country. And in the smoky streets of London they learnt the tongue of their new home to speak in the world, and kept the language of the old country for home. But great uncle Peter spoke not a word of either. And years passed and then decades and my grandmother was born and my mother and then me and as far as anyone knew great uncle Peter still never said a word. When I was older and had children of my own I realised that for all my mother had told me of great uncles Peters silence, she had never been able to tell me why. She never could have because neither she or anybody else knew.
We knew that Peter was special and we looked after him. Through generations of the family he was passed from one relative to the next, always the women watching over this silent, detached man. But then grandmother died of old age and it came my mothers turn and there it skipped a generation. My mother was a working woman and did not have the patience to nurse great uncle Peter. At first she panicked when my father brought this strange savant down from London to our house by the sea. Panicked at the years of life she saw slipping through her fingers, sucked away by Peters needs. My parents advertised for a nurse. They could afford this with the money from two jobs that had already bought the big house and the best schools for me and my two brothers. But the nurse was never needed. Once a day I would take great uncle Peter for a long walk along the Brighton seafront and after only a few days we became a familiar sight on the promenade, the stooped yet still tall old man in the heavy black overcoat, the young girl with masses of unruly blonde hair in her own red windbreaker.
The pebble was always with him. At dinner times he would pop it into his pocket, when he slept it lay on the side table beside him. At any other time it was in his hand, rotating in his long supple fingers. For months I am certain I supposed that he took it from the beach. One day I looked at it more closely. The form of the stone was depressed in two places, where his thumb and forefinger rubbed against its milky surface. I remarked on this to my mother and she started with surprise – yes, Great uncle Peter had had the stone ever since she could remember, maybe as far back as his being a boy and always turning, turning, turning in his fingers until its shape became forever altered.
On our last walk along the seafront I took Peter down to the edge of the shore itself, a short walk from the promenade over the beach of grey pebbles that we rocked and rolled our way over in long, stumbling steps. From the shore we watched the sun drop towards the sea and the pink sky creep upwards from the flat horizon. The waves crashed in towards the beach, climbing higher up the narrow sand channel with each attempt and threatening to flood my expensive shoes. I was looking down at those very shoes when I felt great uncle Peter beside me move with a speed and determination I had never guessed him capable of. I looked up to see his long arm drawn up and back, the cupped hand close by his cheek gripping the pale pebble. He stayed in that pose for only a second before his arm swept forward, the hand unclasped and the pebble was sent soaring out over the waves in a massive arc. We stood silently watching the stone diminish into a tiny speck and then dip down and vanish into the cold waters of the sea, its sound lost amongst the roaring of the waves.
My great uncle Peter looked down at me, the first time he had seemed to even notice his niece and quite unexpectedly a giant smile cracked his face in two.
‘Hello’ he said.
‘Everything now will be just fine.’
And then on that spot he simply collapsed, his heavy body – that I had no way to hold up – falling against the mattress of smooth pebbled beach with a clatter and a crunch.
And the stone sank beneath the waves.
My father found the papers beneath great Uncle Peters bed the day we returned from the hospital. They were written in a tiny, tight calligraphy of nonsensical scratches that spread over page and then page and then page of notebook after notebook. We had never seen great uncle Peter write. The edges of the pages were worn round from fingering, yellow stains crept inward onto their whiteness, the eldest were thin and brittle as though they would crumble under the touch and the newest had been closed for the last time many years before. I keep them now in two large plastic boxes. When I peel back the lids the air they release is impregnated with the scent of those pages, the feeling of those words. I take them and I lay them side by side on the carpet of our bedroom floor and stare at the neat rows of nonsensical letters. I sit and I stare for hours that can become days until my husband or my son or then my grandson pull me away. There isn’t any sense in those words, however hard I try I can’t find a thing in them but however hard I try I can’t stop searching for their meaning. Those tiny shapes scare me more every day because I know, I KNOW that something out there understands them.
I remember great uncle Peter’s stone crashing down into the sea, its ripples quickly lost amongst the waves then carried to the farthest shore and off into the future.
For all our sakes, I hope he hit what he was aiming for.