Gravel crunched under the wheels of the car as Doug pulled off the highway and drove into the old service station. It was grey out, drizzling lightly, and Doug’s wipers screeched as they slid over the glass. He eased up to the bowser, cut the engine. The wipers froze mid windscreen, suddenly silent. He pushed open the car door, stepped out and stretched his back while he admired the impressive rock formation he’d noticed from the road.
It was sheer, unnaturally straight, formed from seams of pink and tan stone. Doug thought it might have been a quarry once given the exact cut of the wall. It rose imposingly into the air, forming a striking backdrop to the white service station.
The rock wall and service centre were nestled in thick bush – spindly pines, lichen spattered eucalypts, a few wattles flowering late with droplets clinging to the foliage. The place carried the earthy scent of leaf rot which mostly drowned out the petrol fumes. Birds called to each other intermittently from the treetops.
He opened the fuel tank, pushed the nozzle in. The familiar tick of the bowser soon overpowered the soft patter of rain. The station was small, only eight pumps, the standard washed out advertisements for coca cola. It had a lot selling second-hand cars, only a handful of which looked operational. Then he spied something interesting. He squinted, made sure he’d read the hand painted sign correctly. Museum of Silences. An arrow pointed around the side of the building.
This was why he liked backroads. Sure, it meant it took Doug longer than most to get where he needed to be, but he had time. Time for new finds, interesting experiences. Much better than arriving early and spending a few more hours holed up in another motel.
The bowser pump clicked, shut itself off. He removed the nozzle, placed it back in its cradle, closed the tank, and walked inside to pay.
Behind the counter was an elderly man who Doug thought would have looked at ease in a bow tie. Grey hair slicked back, black framed glasses. His white shirt was neatly pressed, and he had the air of a man very much at home in his own skin.
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ the man said. His voice was rich, smooth. A radio voice.
‘Afternoon to you, too,’ Doug answered, stepping past shelves of confectionery to get to the counter.
‘Just the fuel today?’
‘Coffee any good?’ he asked and pointed to a sign on the counter.
‘I think it’s quite good, but then I would. I brew it myself,’ he confessed.
Doug cocked an eyebrow. It certainly smelt enticing – rich, and earthy. ‘Okay, I’ll grab a flat white as well, thanks.’
The old man tallied up what he owed, slid the EFTPOS machine across the counter. Doug paid while the man turned to the coffee machine. He soon had it bubbling and hissing.
‘Was this place a stone quarry once?’ Doug asked.
‘Yes, it was. It’s been defunct for some time though, at least most of my lifetime,’ the man said over his shoulder.
‘So, you’ve lived here a while?’
‘Oh, yes. My parents built the service station. I left for a few years in the seventies, but I missed the place. I missed the quiet.’
‘You don’t get lonely out here?’
‘No, always plenty of passers-by. And town’s only half an hour north.’ He turned from the machine, takeaway coffee in hand. He placed it on the counter in front of Doug, who nodded his thanks, picked it up and sipped carefully. ‘Mmm. That is exceptional.’
‘Thank you. What about you, sir, have you been travelling long?’
‘Only about eleven years,’ Doug said, smiling. The man behind the counter frowned momentarily, until Doug added, ‘I’m a travelling salesman.’
The man smiled. ‘Oh, I see. Very good. I didn’t think there would be much call for that sort of work today.’
Doug took another sip from his coffee, smacked his lips. ‘I’m a pharmaceutical rep. I travel around to meet hospitals, pharmacies, and doctors to discuss our new products.’ With his free hand he reached into his breast pocket, removed a card, handed it to the man who studied it.
‘Well, Mr Doug Cain, that does seem quite necessary. I guess I’d never thought of how medicines might be sold. That they’re available when you need them is something I expect many of us take for granted.’ He looked at Doug a moment, then proffered a hand. ‘My name is Henry.’
Doug took his hand in his, pumped once. ‘Nice to meet you, Henry.’ He paused a beat. ‘Henry, one other thing has got me curious. The Museum of Silences. What is that, exactly?’
Henry’s demeanour subtly changed. His face took on an airy, carefree expression. ‘Ah, the museum. It’s a project of mine, something to keep me active on slow days. It’s much as it says, a dedication to silence. But not just that. Take away the ears and what do you have? Sight, touch, smell, taste. The other senses come alive…’ He stopped, regarded Doug who wore his confusion on his face. ‘I can see I’m not doing a very good job clarifying things. But then, I do believe it’s easiest to understand by experiencing the museum. Would you care to take a look?’
‘No charge for patrons of the service station, although if you appreciate the museum, there’s a donation box at the exit. I put that money toward maintenance and upkeep.’
‘Well, I’m intrigued, and the price is right.’ Doug glanced out the window toward his car. ‘Why don’t I quickly move my car and finish this coffee. Then I’d love to see it.’
‘Very good, Mr Cain. I’ll get the keys.’
Henry led Doug around the back of the service station, past old oil drums and other refuse, toward a small white building that protruded from the rock face.
It had stopped drizzling, and the world had brightened a little even though the sky remained hidden beneath a blanket of cloud. Henry still insisted on an umbrella. He passed it to Doug when they reached the door to the museum. Henry fumbled with a large ring of keys until, eventually, he slotted one in place and turned the lock.
The glass door was thick, and well oiled, because when Henry opened it, Doug barely heard a whisper. They stepped inside; the door swinging closed behind them.
‘This is the foyer,’ Henry said, not quite a whisper but spoken more quietly than he had done in the service station. The foyer was of a similar construction to the service station, glass set in white weatherboard walls. The floor appeared newly carpeted. There was a desk in the far corner, and in the middle of the room stood a large glass cube with a few notes and coins at the bottom – the donation box. The back wall was formed from the pink and tan rock face, in the middle of which was a sharply cut rectangular hole, a couple of metres high, a few wide. Glass doors had been affixed over the hole sealing the corridor behind.
‘The first gallery is through the doors.’
‘Inside the rock?’ Doug asked, realising he had also lowered his voice.
‘Yes. It’s a curiosity. You’d think the stone would echo, but it seems to absorb much of the sound, and the lack of windows blocks distractions from the outside world.’
‘Huh. And did you cut the tunnel?’
Henry chuckled softly. ‘No. It was there when my parents bought the land. The exterior rock wall is a mixture of pink and tan granite but buried inside the rock is a high-quality seam of white granite. It’s a little rarer and worth more money, so they cut into the stone here to extract it.’
Doug eyed the glass doors. It appeared dim on the other side. He’d never been claustrophobic, but he was a little reticent about disappearing inside the rock. As if he’d read Doug’s mind, Henry said, ‘Oh, silly me, the lights.’ He hurried to the desk, reached behind, and flicked a switch. Soft LED lighting hummed to life along the length of the pink corridor, and cut into the gloom.
‘There, that should help,’ Henry said. He stepped toward the doors and pulled one open for Doug.
When Doug stepped through, Henry didn’t move to follow.
‘You’re not coming?’ Doug said.
Henry shook his head. ‘No, I need to get back to man the service station. Besides, I find the galleries are best experienced alone.’
Doug glanced at the stone corridor again, then back toward the door to the outside world. He didn’t know why he felt uneasy being left on his own, but he suddenly did. He forced a smile, pushed his disquiet down, and started down the passage. The door behind him gave a soft hiss as Henry closed it.
The corridor wasn’t long, and soon opened into a larger space, the contents of which surprised him pleasantly. Sculptures. All made from pink granite, lit carefully with more LED lighting. The spaces in-between each art piece remained gloomy, so the art appeared as beacons throughout the room.
The sculptures were impressive, or at least Doug thought so, not that he had any expertise in art. They evoked an impression of life, despite their stone nature. The deer mid leap, a dog sat patiently, tongue lolling, the child at play. He walked toward the latter, and for the first time noticed the soft pad of his footfall as he moved, faint but present. There was no other obvious sound. The world, after Henry had closed the doors, seemed to have dissolved. No birdsong, no soft patter of rain. Quiet.
The child was young, happy. A smile spread across lips that gave the impression of mischief and play. It made Doug smile, recall his own youth, the large backyard, the rickety swings, the games he played with his brother. He reached out and ran a hand along the surface of the statue. Cool, smooth. When he realised what he was doing, he guiltily pulled his hand away, looked around, but there was no one to admonish him. Then he remembered what Henry had said about the museum offering a chance to experience the other senses. Perhaps touch wasn’t taboo. He reached out once more, lay his hand on the young boy’s head, sighed wistfully.
Doug took his time moving from piece to piece. Something about the quiet of the museum invited languidness.
By a stone garden he noticed something odd. A fragrance. A trick, he thought, because stone shouldn’t smell of rosemary and lavender. Yet he was certain it did. He inhaled, conscious of the sound of his breath in this place.
The last sculpture he came across was of a large horse, immaculate in detail, head down grazing on stone pastures. Just beyond it he noticed another glass door and a second corridor. A single door this time. When he tried the handle, the rattle in its frame was oppressively loud, like a cough in an empty church. Doug felt his face redden. Even though he knew he was the only person inside the museum, he felt like he’d done something wrong.
He turned and made his way slowly back toward the foyer. At the doors he hesitated. The museum had been a truly unique experience, just as Henry had promised. He exhaled, pushed open the double doors and was instantly struck by the intrusion of dull sounds – birds, traffic in the distance.
Outside, he found the cloud had lifted, and while the sky was blue overhead, the light was dull, like the sun was low in the sky. Confused, he checked his watch and was shocked to find he’d been inside the museum almost two hours. ‘Jesus,’ he muttered to himself. It couldn’t have been that long. He felt a momentary jolt of panic. At this rate, he’d only get to Sydney after nightfall.
‘There you are. I was just coming to check on you,’ came Henry’s voice.
When Doug looked up, Henry was walking toward him. Doug felt disoriented, like waking from an afternoon nap. ‘Is it really after six?’ Doug asked.
Henry glanced at his watch, then back at Doug. Nodded. ‘Yes, it is. I’m sorry, I should have warned you. Time gets a little fluid when you’re inside the rock, well at least I find it does. Some days I get completely immersed in the experience. It’s a struggle to free myself from its pull, and step back out into the world.’
Doug frowned. ‘I see.’ He needed to get back on the road, but the question was out before he could stop it. ‘The door at the back of the gallery…’ He trailed off, uncertain what he was asking.
‘It leads deeper into the stone, to the second gallery. I’d be happy to show you. It’s for special patrons only, but I suspect you, Mr Cain, are someone who appreciates the quiet. Someone who would be willing to let the silence in.’
Doug felt the compulsion to agree. He wanted to go back and see where that single glass door led. But he shook his head instead. ‘Sorry, but I really do have to get back on the road.’
‘Of course. Perhaps another time then.’
‘Yes. Another time.’ It was his chance to leave, but still, he couldn’t quite bring himself to go. He glanced at the rock formation again, then back at Henry. ‘Thanks again, Henry,’ he said. ‘It really was most interesting. The artwork was exquisite. Is it your work?’
‘I’m the creator, yes,’ Henry said, beaming.
‘You’ve a real talent.’ Doug glanced at his watch again. He couldn’t put departure off any further. He wasn’t sure why he’d delayed for as long as he had. ‘I’m sorry I’ve got to run like this, but I really am behind schedule.’
‘I completely understand. But please, visit again.’
Doug promised he would. He excused himself, then reluctantly returned to his car.
Doug drove into Sydney well after dark, and soon found himself stuck in gridlock. The radio informed him of an accident, which didn’t entirely surprise him given the urgent honking, and distant sounds of sirens.
He felt a headache coming on. The slow build of pain at the base of his neck that he knew would soon stretch up and claw at his temples. He felt out of sorts, and every blast from a horn got under his skin. Even the constant idle of the semi-trailer two lanes over irked him. He felt the deep gurgle of that diesel engine in his bones, his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut as he sat motionless in the traffic.
He’d never cared for Sydney at the best of times. He was a small town kid, and these one-off visits to the big smoke were more than enough to satiate the odd desire to be surrounded by people and noise. But not tonight. Tonight, he just wanted to get to his hotel, order room service, and settle down with a bottle of wine and his book.
He opened his eyes hoping the traffic would be back underway. It wasn’t. All he could see were red taillights snaking into the distance. His hotel room seemed a fantasy. He should have stayed at the museum, he thought. Explored the second gallery, called in sick and driven home.
He smiled. A nice thought, but not something he’d ever do.
He turned the radio off, tried to breathe. In out, in out. It helped calm him a little. The cars would move again soon, he thought. They had to.
Doug couldn’t sleep.
He lay on his side, the pillow hot against his ear. The air conditioner hummed loudly in the room, and through the thin windows came the intermittent sounds of vehicles and pedestrian traffic on the street below.
The traffic jam had lasted longer than he thought possible, and by the time he’d got to the hotel it had been close to midnight, his head pounding incessantly. The kitchen had been closed, so he’d settled for a stale cheese sandwich from the Seven Eleven across the street. He’d chased that with a can of coke and paracetamol. At least that had helped ease the pressure in his head, if not his bad mood.
After his unsatisfying meal, he’d slipped into bed, certain he’d slumber fitfully after the long day he’d had. But no. He’d tossed and turned, unable to find peace. Every sound that intruded from the hotel corridors and the street jarred his nerves.
Doug had never married, but he’d lived for six years with a woman named Gillian, and her son, Sam. They were nice people, and he thought he had loved them both for a time. She’d been kind to him, and the boy was a decent kid. But when they were in his house, it had never felt like his. For the entire six years he’d wake whenever anyone got up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom. Which made sense when it was Gillian rising from her place in bed next to him. He was a light sleeper, and the movement of the mattress would jolt him from slumber. But it happened with the boy, too. Doug would just know he was up. His eyes would spring open, and he’d hear Sam walk softly down the hall. Doug would lie in bed, listening, as Sam urinated, flushed the toilet, padded back along the hall to his room. He wouldn’t be able to sleep again until the boy was back in bed, still.
The hotel felt like sharing his house again. But no one would keep still tonight. Not a soul.
Doug sleepwalked through his meetings the following day. His eyes were gritty, sore, his head a burning mess doused with coffee and paracetamol. But he got through each of them, ticked the boxes he needed to tick, left behind samples, documentation, his card.
When the last meeting of the day ended early, he decided to check out of his hotel and drive home. He knew it would have been more sensible to have a good night’s sleep before he got back on the road, but after his previous night, he had no confidence he’d get one in Sydney, even as tired as he was.
He loaded up with coffee, promised himself he’d stop regularly, and nap at a truck stop when it got too much. He filled the car with petrol, and headed out of the city, never so happy to see Sydney’s skyline fade in the rear-view mirror.
Doug had the windows down, and the rush of humid air against his face along with the effects of several coffees kept him in a state of fuzzy alertness for the first couple of hours.
But Doug had always found driving to be metronomic. It began to get to him. The steady vision of the black road snaking toward the horizon, the blur of trees along the sides of the road as he flew past, the dipping into and out of late afternoon shadows. He felt himself being lulled toward sleep. Toward danger.
When he realised the car had veered across the central line of the road, he corrected too sharply, his heart accompanying the sudden jerk of the wheel with a thrumming beat. He forced his eyes wider, but knew he needed to stop.
That’s when he saw the rock formation, the white service station in front. He gave a wry smile. He hadn’t consciously decided to return home the same way he’d come, but in his tired state, he’d done so. Now, like a beacon, here was the Museum of Silences.
He flicked on his indicator and eased his foot off the accelerator to allow the car to slow.
‘Good lord, Mr Cain. I apologise for saying so, but you look awful.’
Doug chuckled good naturedly. ‘No apology necessary, Henry. I feel awful. Sydney was worse than I remembered. I’m usually not so fussy, but last night I just couldn’t sleep there.’
Henry made a clicking noise with his tongue. ‘Yes, I guess people get used to it, but I’ve always found it hard to adjust on the rare occasions I’ve had reason to go. Anyway, please, how can I help? You really shouldn’t drive in your state.’
Doug held his hands up, mock surrender. ‘Completely agree. I guess I just wanted to check whether you would mind if I parked the car behind the building and had a bit of a catnap before I kept going.’
‘Not at all. I wish I could offer you a more comfortable place to sleep, but I’m afraid it’s just an office out back here… unless…’ He looked at Doug, smiled warmly. ‘Well, it’s no bed, but the foyer of the museum is newly carpeted. If you wanted a reprieve from the sounds of the road, I could open it for you?’
‘Huh,’ Doug said, thinking. He could hear a truck approaching and as it passed along the road outside, the windows in the service station rattled. He winced. ‘You know what, I think I might take you up on that offer.’
‘Let me grab the keys.’
‘There you go,’ Henry said as he pulled open the door. Doug stepped inside the foyer and was relieved to find it about five degrees cooler than outside.
‘This is perfect. Thank you so much, Henry.’
‘Just yell out if you need anything further.’
He waited till Henry left, then went toward the corner near the desk. He’d brought a jumper from his suitcase, and he rolled it up into a makeshift pillow, then lay down upon the floor. The carpet was surprisingly soft, and his eyes felt so raw he was certain he’d be asleep in seconds.
But it didn’t happen.
He’d start to doze, but then jolt awake, the squawk from a galah in his ears. Or he’d hear another truck on the highway. Or someone talking in the distance as they filled their car. The sounds were dulled by the walls of the foyer, diluted by his distance from the highway, but he couldn’t stop himself listening. Sound everywhere. He couldn’t escape it.
He opened his eyes, sat up and looked toward the glass doors to the museum. The corridor lighting was on. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember if that had been the case when Henry had let him in? It must have, he thought. He got up, and on a whim took out his wallet and dropped a twenty dollar note into the donation box. Then he went to the glass doors, tested them. They opened smoothly. He hesitated on the periphery, feeling like a trespasser, but then he continued anyway, allowing the doors to close behind him.
The change was instantaneous. Whatever type of glass the doors were made from shielded the museum from the sounds of the outside world perfectly. And even though he remained exhausted, the silence of the gallery felt like a balm for his frayed nerves.
He moved dreamily through the museum, running his hands over the statues, feeling the coolness of the stone. Little by little he felt revived. Time slipped by him. He was conscious of its passing, but it didn’t worry him. He was happy to let it go while he revelled in this special place, alone.
As he reached the horse, his eyes drifted to the door to the next gallery. Last time, when he’d tried the door, the corridor beyond had been dark. It was lit this time, not as brightly as the gallery he was in, but bright enough to push back the gloom a little and to expose the walls as white.
Doug approached the door, took the handle in hand, and turned. There was no resistance. He pulled the door open, stepped inside and let it close behind him.
Doug didn’t know how it was possible, but this space was quieter still. Perhaps the lights in the other room emitted a subtle hum, or there was some air moving in there. Here though, nothing. Absolute silence. It demanded the same, so he stood very still, letting it wash over him.
When he eventually moved, he cringed at the sound his feet made. The soft padding seemed an abomination in this shrine to quiet. He pressed ahead until the corridor opened into the next room.
It was smaller than the previous gallery, darker. White walls shimmered in the dim lighting like stars reflected on an ocean at night. There were only two sculptures inside, along with a large block of white granite yet to be carved. Both sculptures were highlighted with soft light. They drew him forward.
He moved as slowly and carefully as he could, but still the sound of his footfall polluted the gallery. He was relieved when he was able to stop again, and the sound died away.
The first statue was of an older man, eyes closed, face tilted to the heavens. His expression was one of serenity. A man accepting of his fate, and content with his place in the world. Doug couldn’t quite believe how skilful Henry was. He didn’t understand how he wasn’t a renowned artist. The work was lovely, the moment perfectly captured. It was so lifelike that Doug felt compelled to mirror the man’s pose. He looked up at the dark ceiling, closed his eyes against the light in the room, listened. He noticed his breath. The subtle hiss as he exhaled and inhaled. He swallowed, which sounded loud and foreign too.
He consciously slowed his breathing. He didn’t want to create more noise. Didn’t want to move. But when he opened his eyes the second statue called to him. It wasn’t far, he saw. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with the uncarved block of granite close by. He wanted to see it up close. Had to. He gritted his teeth, then moved as languorously as possible toward it.
The sounds of his movements jarred, but they proved to be worth it. The sculpture was the most stunning in the museum.
A mother and her daughter, exquisitely carved from white granite, polished until they gleamed. The mother sat cross legged, the daughter in her lap looking at something far off with a glint of joy in her eyes. The mother held both hands over her daughter’s ears, as if to block out the sounds of the world. Anywhere else, that pose might have struck Doug as odd. Not here, not in this place. He wished he could stopper his own and appreciate the gallery without the contamination of his footsteps, his breath, the steady beat of his heart and all the other internal sounds that he couldn’t suppress.
After he’d admired the statue for some time, the weariness in his bones began to make itself known again. As relaxed as the galleries had made him feel, he needed real rest. Sleep.
He glanced toward the corridor. Thirty feet away at best, yet it seemed an eternity. His mind recoiled at the noise he would need to create to go back. His eyes returned to the statue, then settled on the nearby granite block. He smiled, moved carefully, then lowered himself onto it. It was perfectly positioned to allow a clear view of the woman and her child. He wondered if Henry had sat here as he’d made them.
After a while, Doug noticed that the stone was warm against his backside, not cool. Odd, he thought. Yet the warmth comforted. It helped him move from relaxed, to a deliciously fugue state as he stared at the woman and her child. His mind stilled, his heart slowed, his breathing grew softer.
His lids became heavy, his eyes closed, yet he found he could see the statues still. The man that stared through closed lids at the heavens. The woman who blocked the distractions of the world for her daughter. Frozen, and serene. Quiet, smooth, and pale.
The warmth from the granite seeped into him. He allowed it to spread through him like a dream. His breathing slowed further, then stopped. His heart hardened. The last of his thoughts wandered, left. Like the warmth in the stone, silence filled him.
A small click brought him back for a beat, enough of an irritant to open heavy, blind eyes.
Muscles creaked, an aeon to bend the arm. Painstakingly slowly, he raised an index finger, held it to his lips.
The lights went out.
A lock was quietly turned.
Michael Gardner is an economist by day, a writer of fantasy and horror by night. Strangely, he aspired to do both as a teenager, and was encouraged in his writing by an English teacher who didn’t mind that his creative writing assessments were always about the supernatural, and influenced heavily by Clive Barker. His work has since appeared in Aurealis, Bourbon Penn, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and Metaphorosis. And he has gone on to win a Writers of the Future Award himself. He is also a two-time finalist for the Aurealis Awards.
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