I do a lot of strange things, but this must rank among the strangest.
It is a glorious evening on Port Meadow: a hundred thousand miles’ width of cobalt sky, bisected by the bright white scar of a double jet trail. I switch off my iPod as I approach the gate.
And there, Silence is waiting. Or, as he would have it, s1l3nc3. The internet tells me s1l3nc3 is a magician and mind reader from Oxford, who picked up a small sackful of critical awards at Edinburgh this summer. The twist – the twist that has me chewing my lip and looking about me as watchfully as a dope fiend – is that he performs in total silence.
Silence is dressed in careful black, with a scarlet scarf and scarlet laces in his black Allstars. We shake hands. He points towards the Thames. We walk. He moves as noiselessly as a thief. I’m limping a little. Shin splints. In an attempt to seize control of this interview, I pull out my pad and write.
‘3 rules. 1 – no speech. 2 – max. 5 words per question. 3 – there are no other rules.’
He nods. We walk. Over the first bridge, onto the gravel, over the second bridge.
I think I handle silence fairly well. I travel and run a lot, and some of the best moments in my life have been spent alone. No, not like that. OK, maybe sometimes like that. But this silence shared with a stranger is – well, to be honest, it’s a little like a first date. You feel the same jitteriness, the same stabbing awareness of personal space. I am suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to talk about something, anything, just to open my mouth and drown everything in meaningless noise.
But I say nothing. We walk. The sun slips silently below the horizon. Then the doubts begin. What if Silence is psychotic? The Edinburgh reviews were full of hushed whispers of teeth-clenching self-harm. What if he chloroforms me? What if he kills me, and dumps my body in the Isis?
I shoot Silence a sidelong glance. He looks perfectly calm. This is his natural habitat. It’s all in your own head, I tell myself, get a grip. Then, in the last dying light of the day, we reach the ruins of Godstow Nunnery. Through the entrance, and into the blasted shell of a side-chapel. The half-moon through the south window is the only light. And it begins.
Ordinarily I would tell contributors never ever to write up interviews as a transcript, but what happened under that silent moon was so strange that there is a kind of objective comfort in those written words. We are what happened, they say, everything else is in your head.
Q1. ‘Reality abuse?’
Half a minute’s pause. Then he writes. ‘People no longer experience silence… It is the most concise way to describe what is done.’
I think a while, then underline the word ‘abuse’ twice and hand over the pad of paper. Wrong question. Silence holds up a finger. He opens his bag, takes out a three-inch nail, and wipes it carefully with a cotton pad. He indicates that I should test it. It’s real. Then he takes out a hammer. I test it. It’s real. Then he gazes at a point about two feet to the left of my face, and inserts the nail up his left nostril at an angle of about 30 degrees below the horizontal. Tap. Tap. Tap. He sniffs, blinks. Tap. Tap.
Q2. Is that what silence is?
‘Silence is a medium that helps you appreciate.’
Q3. How many get it?
‘It is not discrete. Everyone understands differently.’
Q4. Are people afraid of silence/s1l3nc3?
He just looks at me. I cross out people and write ‘you.’ He flips the pad over, and points to rule 2. ‘Max. 5 words per question.’ OK, fine.
Q5. You read minds?
‘I listen in the silence.’ Pause. ‘Book.’
He asked me to bring a book. I take Aldous Huxley’s ‘Crome Yellow’ out of my bag. Silence produces a copy of this week’s Cherwell, and opens it to page 3, where he has written in thick black marker, ‘As a journalist, it is your job to choose your words carefully.’ Page 5. ‘But how random are these words?’ He asks me to initial a card, then writes on it and puts it on the ground. ‘(For later)’.
Page 9 asks me to memorise the first word of page 66 of my book. ‘Lady.’ Then he makes me choose a three digit number at random, and to memorise the first word of that page from his book. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Page 352. ‘Today.’ Finally, I am asked to pick a random and unconnected third word. For no good reason, the word ‘German’ pops into my head.
Silence gestures that I should pick up the card from the ground. It reads, ‘German.’ Next, he studies me carefully, and writes on a second card. Lady. Third, and finally, he indicates that I should turn to page 29 of Cherwell. In my own article – my own damn article! – he had already ringed the word ‘today.’ What an utter bastard. Finally, on page 31, one last word: ‘RANDOM?’
He’s winning this. Get your own back.
Q6. Does that always work?
Great. More predictable than most.
One last question. Who owns s1l3nc3?
He thinks for the better part of a minute.
‘It is a part of every human mind.
‘And always will be.’
I feel stupid and banal, like a child. All along, I’d been fighting for control of silence, while Silence himself was just standing there and listening. I have a sudden vision of myself from the outside: pushing, shouldering, vying, always pushing to win everything. It passes in a flash. Is this what silence is?
We shake hands, and walk off into the night.
S1l3nc3 will be performing on Thursday of 2nd week at the Keble O’Reilly, 7.30pm