“I don’t know what you’re taking about” came the curt response. I hadn’t prepared for this. Zora was always a straight shooter. She would at least tell me what was up. I thought. I felt the air leave my body. My face flushing. Thank God we were on the phone.

For a year, a political group I had been involved with had stopped talking to me. Broken off contact. Save for the odd remark, third or fourth hand, that I was a “bad person”. Or that someone had said they “don’t like you”. What happened? What did I do? Something awful? The suddenness suggested something specific. The silence indicated it didn’t require explanation. The fact that I didn’t know what it was implied I was doubly guilty. Guilty of whatever I’d done, and guilty for not being politically conscious enough for realising what it was. It wasn’t for want of reflection. I obsessed over my actions. To the point of nausea. At the same time, so much of what I do remember was… well that feeling of not really knowing what is going on anyway. You see, the silence hadn’t come completely out of the blue. There had been warning signs. People greeting me with smirks. People stealing glances at each other when I spoke. Pursed lips. Pained expressions. Sighs. Forced breaths in. Forced breaths out. Then it came. The silence.

Silence is a slow death. It’s not like getting, insulted, punched, or spat at. It’s more akin to a disease. You aren’t aware of it when it begins. Then when the signs start to appear, it eats into your immune system. The various strategies you’ve learned to preserve your mental health suddenly count against you. Your trust in people. Your inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt. Your efforts not to be paranoid. All make for lost time. Time you could have spent addressing or containing it. Maybe their phone’s on silent. Maybe they just forgot to reply. Maybe they didn’t see you. Maybe you just slipped their mind. By the time you’ve twigged what’s happening, it’s spread to an entire social circle.

Silence doesn’t just spread outwards to other people. It spreads inwards. It gets in your insides. Your gut. Silence is always with us. Always. Our most private moments are in silence. The time we spend closing our eyes. Or gazing into space. When we are trying to sleep. To imagine. When we breathe. Silence is also intimate. It is the rhythm of interaction. The space between words. The intervals that bound replies. Silence is what makes you, you. Until a large number of people start giving you the silent treatment. Then the noise of their silence drowns out your own quiet silence. Silence becomes what makes them, them. Once the most visceral proof of your existence becomes a mere marker of your disappearance.

The silence on the end of the phone was deafening.

I waited a second or two more to see if Zora would follow up with anything. She didn’t. I would have to break the silence. “Well that’s a relief” I said unconvincingly. More silence. I continued. “I just thought because we hadn’t spoken in so long that there was an issue.” I could hear how I sounded. Emotional. Jumbled. I needed to explain myself. “It’s just that there were those two events where we… and we didn’t.. you know… speak…”. My voice trailed off. “No. We’re fine.” Things didn’t sound fine. I tried to change tack. If she could say things were fine, why couldn’t I act fine? I should try to relax. Maybe make a joke? Wouldn’t this convey breeziness? I don’t remember what the joke was. Only that it didn’t convey breeziness. I tried to laugh which didn’t convey breeziness either. More silence. I made my excuses and rang off.

Zora was not the first person I spoke to. A few weeks before I’d contacted Tamina. I was much closer with Tamina. Or had been. At the time I called, I wasn’t sure where I stood with her. At any rate, she didn’t appreciate the phone call. “Now isn’t a good time”, she said impatiently. It wasn’t to be fair. She was at the airport about to catch a flight. “If you’re worried that someone has a problem with you, talk to them”. Such straightforward advice. What could be simpler? “But you haven’t had a problem telling me people had a problem with me before.” I offered limply. This was revisiting old wounds. As my relationship with her and the group had begun to flounder, Tamina had played the role of messenger of my declining popularity. Meanwhile she had studiously avoided defending me. Which I resented. She resented my resentment. She rang off.

What I should have said to Tamina was that I had tried to contact other people. It was after a year of failing that I contacted her in the first place. I still wasn’t ready to give up. After Zora, I had lost my nerve with phone conversations though. I sent out a bunch of “feeler” emails to people I had reason to believe I was on good terms with. Just asking people how they were etc. No responses. One of the people I contacted was a woman called Nadia. She wasn’t part of the political group, but she was friends with some of its members. I had known her for a while and we at least had been friends. A couple of weeks after I had sent her the email, I bumped into her in the lobby of a theatre. The conversation was short.

- Hey Nadia!

- Hey.

- Good to see you.

- …

- Did you get my email?

- Yeh

- Ahh good

- Enjoying the play?

- …

- I’m just here with Amber

- Oh Amber, I’d like to speak to her.

Amber was a friend of mine from my old workplace. I’d introduced her to various political groups. Nadia came over later to where we were sitting and pointedly had a conversation with Amber and not me. I sat there obediently in silence.

Looking back on the experience with a degree of distance what is most striking to me is just how completely defeated I was. I had no idea why any of them were treating me like they were, yet by now I didn’t feel it was my place to ask. I was shocked by their behaviour but also resigned to it at the same time. There was no sense of anger or righteous indignation. A year of silence had completely ground me down. If anything, I felt gratitude that some of them had deigned to speak to me at all. Mostly I felt humiliation. Up until that point I had felt I had retained some sense of dignity by keeping the pain of their silence to myself. I could pretend that I hadn’t noticed. Or that I didn’t care. By hiding, I could hide that feeling of disappearance they had inflicted upon me. By confronting them about the silence I was also confronting them with my disappearance. My disappearance became visible. Laid bare.