One winter my sister wore a coat the exact colour of the sky, so when she walked over rooftops with her hands in her pockets, all you could see from the ground was her head, drifting above the ridge tiles like a cheeky balloon bobbing between chimneys. It was in that period after bear baiting but before reality TV, so it caused quite a stir, with nosey neighbours bussing in from the suburbs to tut and prophecy disaster as they twitched curtains that they’d brought along with them. I even made some pocket money renting our curtains to those who had forgotten their own, and they’d tut at me, then tut at my sister’s head as it orbited television aerials like an indecisive spacecraft unsure if it wanted to land. Come Spring, she hung the coat away, and by late autumn she’d grown taller and tired of rooftops, and wore a red coat to meet her friends and ride her bicycle to – I can’t remember where. And I can’t remember why I kept that first coat, the one that was the exact colour of the sky. Perhaps I’d intended to give it to my daughter when she reached the age of rooftops, but I never had a daughter and, besides, it’s too full of all those birds you don’t see quite so often now.
It’s Black Friday, and crows are lining the window ledges like stiff barristers poised to jump. There’s been a slump in law since lies became facts, matched by a retail surge since truth’s been discounted. On the boarded-up high street, drizzle-damp cups call out for change in three-for-two offers and buy-one-get-one-free deals to assuage any guilt that may still cling. The crows look down on carrion in waiting, the meat machines winding down as they scroll their phones in search of smarter devices and bigger, brighter screens. A ghost, I slip once more from my nest of bones, huddle between black feathers to keep my slip-thin sense of self from blowing away. A busker murders Dylan through a cheap amp, a radio buzzes with what we once called lies and, now that the pills have worn off, I cling to the ledge, unsure of what I’m worth.
As resources run low, the zeitgeist demands prudence, rationing sounds on the basis of household needs: one voice, one kitchen appliance, and one hinge in need of WD40 – everything else must exist in a bubble of absolute quiet. At first there were protests, with makeshift musical instruments and unregulated vocal expression, but the authorities planted stooges to steal all sense of rhythm and to chip away at words, one phoneme at a time. In less than a week the streets were empty, except for muted squad cars making their rounds. I’ve not been responding well, and I’ve become clumsy, my hands shaking as figures with pipes and drums dance in my peripheral vision. I’ll drop a glass every couple of days, but I’ve learnt to stop them hitting the floor until it’s my turn to break the silence. Every mealtime, a minister appears on the TV, saying nothing, then the camera shifts to a gothic hall full of bored faces or a carpark packed with ambulances, each a stage for a silent opera. I wade through a wash of knee-high glass that makes no sound. When my turn comes to speak, my voice will be the wind in abandoned factory chimneys.
Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He has published nine full collections and chapbooks, including Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) which won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and most recently the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). Oz has held residencies in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia, and has performed internationally at major festivals and intimate soirees. He is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes. Oz recommends the West of England MS Therapy Centre.