AIDA AUSTIN: “The house will not burn down when you’re gone.”

HOME, 11.30pm.

I am in bed. Tomorrow morning, I will depart for Glencairn Abbey, where — for an article on monastic life, I shall stay for two nights. My preparations for tomorrow’s trip are complete. I am Googling ‘monastic silence’ while my husband reads The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window.

“Wow. This monastic silence thing is really interesting,” I say. “Did you know that Cistercian monks had their own sign-language?”

“Mmm ... no.”

“It says here that “early monastic communities evolved simple hand-signing for essential communications…”

“Mmm...wha?”

“Yes, it says… let me find it [click, click], yes, here it is. ‘They used hand signs in place of words in both formal and casual situations’…”

“Mmmm.”

” ‘One monk would ask another if he wanted coffee by placing the first two fingers of the right hand onto the wrist of the left hand, as if he was checking his pulse’…”

“Mmmm.”

“Don’t you find that fascinating?”

“I am trying to read,” he says, in the manner of put-upon saint.

“No, seriously, listen,” I say. “It says ‘these signs were not intended to function as speech, nor are they similar to the deaf sign language… they are a lexicon of signs that may be strung together to form phrases and sentences’.”

“I’m trying to…”

“So, for example, if you want to say ‘cider’, you sign for ‘apple’ and then you sign for ‘water’.”

My husband puts his book down and looks at me as if he wants me to climb out of the window.

“Ok, ok,” I say.

“In fairness, you get really annoyed when you’re reading and I …”

“One last thing,”

“And then you’ll stop?”

“Yes.”

“To ask someone to pass the salt, they rubbed the tip of their tongue with the tip of their right forefinger.”

“That’s more effort than saying salt.”

“Perhaps, but the point of silence is about more than just…”

“You said one last thing.”

I Google in silence, close the laptop and pick up my book, but am unable to read; I’m wondering how far my husband will allow the ‘fun to domestic drudgery’ ratio swing in favour of fun, in my absence. I want to return in two days to a clean house.

“By the way, we’ve run out of dog food,” I say.

“I’ll get some.”

“And can you phone the vet? Myrtle is still limping.”

“I will.”

“And the washing machine is full of bedding, so you need to …”

“On it.”

“Oh, thank God I remembered. I read this thing about a chimney balloon. You inflate it and stick it up a chimney to stop draughts. Anyway, I’ve shoved three cushions up the chimney in the little sitting room, so for God’s sake don’t light a fire in there…”

“Handy advice.”

“I mean, imagine if I hadn’t told you and…”

“You’ve told me. The house will not burn down when you’re gone.”

“While I remember, we’re out of kindling.”

“I know. I still have John’s chainsaw, so I’ll…”

“Please be careful with it. I don’t want to come back and find you bleeding to death in a field.”

My husband goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He reappears and through a mouthful of toothpaste, says, “I’m just wondering… you know the monastery you’re going to?”

“Yes.”

“Do they do that sign language thing there?”

“No.”

“So what do they do?”

“Well,” I say, “generally speaking, they practice silence but…”

“I was just thinking…”

“What?” I say,

“Perhaps you should practice it before you go, you know, to get you into the swing.” He looks pleased with himself. I sharpen my eyes like pencils and stab him with them; sometimes, disagreeably, it’s important to acknowledge when you’re bested.


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