For the first few days, every time I get on the bus or walk to the library or go to the café round the corner for a cup of tea, I point at my throat and mouth sorry, I can’t speak. Sometimes I don’t try for words at all. I just point to my throat and open my mouth to show that no sound comes out. Waiters hand me menus to point at what I want; bus drivers print my ticket based on the money I’ve deposited. But I soon tire of this. I stop telling people I can’t talk, and I just don’t talk. I still point at things on the menu and put my money in the bus ticket machine without speaking. Nothing changes. People might find me rude for not saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but they do not mention it. I am beginning to enjoy muteness. I go for days without checking whether my voice has returned.
Phones are a problem. Should I answer, knowing that all I can offer the receiver is silence? If the person on the other end does not know that I cannot speak, then what will they think? Even if they do know, and just want to leave a message for someone else, I can’t acknowledge the message. This opens up a whole new vein of worry: what if I have to call an ambulance? Technology must exist for people who can’t speak – I’ve seen ‘textphone’ mentioned on TV show call-ins – but I do not have these technologies. I picture myself standing over a body twisting in the throes of a seizure, the telephone gripped in my hand as I mouth soundlessly at the emergency operator. Or standing outside a burning house, sleeping people trapped inside, the world deaf to my useless screams.
To avoid damaging my vocal chords further, I ration myself to three sentences a day. This soon proves to be more than enough, and some days I do not even use those sentences. I consider saving them up, so that at the end of the week I can say 21 sentences all together, one after another. I think about all the sublime, shocking, erotic things I could say in 21 sentences. But by the end of the week, nothing I think seems important enough to risk damaging my vocal chords. Even if the damage was not a factor, nothing I can think of is worth saving up. And who would I say those precious words to, anyway? Who would listen closely enough that it was worth saving words so jealously, so carefully?
Sounds take on a different texture. They seem richer and more varied. The wail of a police siren was deafening when it cut across a conversation; now it interrupts my thoughts pleasantly, as a logical punctuation to my train of thought. I listen to the siren pass, then carefully step back into my thoughts. The bark of a dog, the rustle of the trees, the squick of my wet trainers on the pavement: all these things are the soundtrack to the world, which human conversation does nothing but drown out. Words do not add anything useful.
And then my voice comes back one morning, suddenly, when my girlfriend asks me whether I’d like toast for breakfast and I say “Yes, please,” just like that, without even thinking. My girlfriend puts the bread under the grill before she realises what happened, and then her only response is to mutter “Oh, good.”