NOT TO HOLD
Silence is winning. In her experience, it almost invariably does, shrouding whichever space she’s in, seeping into every crack, filling every orifice. An accumulation of almost-spoken words, of jumbled thoughts battling one another, of feelings pummelled into submission, it is a howling silence.
And on that particular day, it is the invisible, unwanted guest at a celebratory lunch, a table of eight, with seven voices engaged in a lively, at times boisterous, conversation. The expensive wine has loosened the tongues, the food – flavoursome and in small portions – hasn’t been savoured. Only she has noticed the basil note in the lemon mousse, the hint of paprika in the tomato sorbet, the delicate texture of the cheese soufflé.
These brief moments of heightened culinary awareness have nothing to do with knowledge or experience. They are desperate attempts to focus her attention on anything beside the impenetrable space between their two bodies, hers still as a statue, his, ready as always to spring into action.
His left hand is curled up in a loose fist against the bench seat, while her right hand, pointing in his direction, is spread flat, her slightly sweaty palm stuck to the burgundy imitation leather. She’s spent the last fifteen minutes attempting to stretch out her spidery fingers closer to his hand, but the tightly wound muscles in her forearm refuse to loosen up. There are only four, maybe five, centimetres between the tip of her middle finger and the knuckle of his thumb: an impossible distance to cover, a barren land, a precipice even.
If she lifts her hand, the sound of suction of her palm being liberated from the plastic grip will attract the wrong kind of attention. Moored to the seat, deprived of the use of her dominant hand, she’s putting on a convincing performance of an entertained guest, although she hasn’t taken in a single word that has been uttered since she shuffled to the edge of the bench, making space for the latest arrival at the party, the last person she expected to sit next to today.
Silence can only be winning. In its presence, words ultimately bounce, laughter shatters and music ebbs away. Overpowering, inescapable, it has been her companion since the day she met him: the man whose rolled fists are a warning, who, apart from a brief hello, hasn’t paid her the slightest attention.
Sometimes, she wonders if she’s ever truly experienced silence before knowing him, if, in the end, it wasn’t his only gift. And as they sit side by side, seemingly two perfect strangers sharing a birthday meal, with little in common besides one mutual and increasingly drunk friend, silence, she knows, is threatening to swallow her whole.
Inheriting ten million pounds from a friend should be simple, except Elspeth is in shock and in denial. She wasn’t meant to lose the one person who brought her joy, her travelling companion, the one person to whom she’s confessed her past obsession for Melchior and the near-fatal accident he was involved in because of her. She refuses to spend the money or tell anyone about it. Instead, she resigns from her teaching job and plans a ‘pilgrimage’ across Europe to revisit the places she discovered with Sybil and convey the news of her death to her many friends.
As for Danny, inheriting ten million pounds from someone he’s never met should be easy, except he suspects Sybil was one of his late father's many mistresses. Thinking about her or spending her money, means revisiting the past, his leaving home at the age of seventeen, frustrated by his mother’s apathy in the face of his father’s indifference and philandering. Denial is his solution, as is obsessing about Elspeth, whom he knows is the other heir to Sybil’s fortune, to the point of following her across London, one morning.
When Elspeth and Danny meet, they argue and challenge each other, in vain, to move on. Gradually, they develop a bond as Elspeth travels across Europe. Unbeknownst to her, he goes to Bilbao, the last stop in her ‘pilgrimage’, to glean information about Sybil and wait for her arrival. There, Danny discovers that he and his mother are indebted to Sybil in ways he never thought were possible, while Elspeth comes to realise that the mighty Sybil was as human and fallible as her and Melchior wasn’t the man she needed him to be.
83,000 words / UK Copyright Service Registration no 284725041