Gerry turned the key in the door and waited for the sound of his son greeting him home. He did the same thing every evening; the words never came and the pain of the silence never got any duller. Yet he always felt compelled to linger for just a second on the doorstep, day after day after day.
He left the bags of groceries on the kitchen table and went to greet Tobias, lifting him in his arms and holding him high over his head. Tobias gurgled with delight and Gerry brought him back down into his chest and hugged him tightly. He allowed himself a brief, wistful daydream of how different it would have been if he had got married earlier, if he had put aside the childish things of his bachelor years and settled down to family life instead. His best friend Dan’s daughter had been born three years after they left university and she was a proper little chatterbox. Tobias was almost eight years younger and like all children born in the past five years or so he had never uttered a single comprehensible word in his life.
The Silent Generation. A global catastrophe of an entire birth cohort who could communicate with each other, but not with their elders. They spoke no English, no Spanish, no Swahili. Their dark future had been earnestly dissected in the Sunday supplements and the academic journals, by disbelieving bloggers, evangelical conspiracy theorists, journalists, politicians, mums and dads. What bizarre twist in human evolution had led to this? What would happen when these children grew up and became doctors, teachers, prime ministers? Already the more paranoid sections of society had formed pressure groups and bands of vigilantes aimed at protecting the rights of the older generation, the Speakers; whipping up terrible visions of a society that would turn on its parents.
Gerry shook his head gently and chided himself for brooding on problems that he was powerless to change. He carried Tobias into the living room where Maria the childminder was folding tea towels. They chatted briefly but did not allude to “the situation”. Gerry didn’t feel comfortable discussing it with anyone except his partner Daphne and he had never really warmed to Maria anyway. She kissed Tobias on the forehead and said goodbye. This greatly annoyed Gerry; he hated to see other Speakers talk to the young ones as if nothing was wrong, as if they would suddenly look up and reply.
He put Tobias on the couch and sat at his desk, switching on his computer. When he looked back over at Tobias the child broke into a huge smile and gave a soft chuckle. Gerry froze in terror and his head swam briefly with the enormity of it all. Once more he remonstrated himself on his brooding nature and returned to his work.
Daphne turned the key in the door and listened for the familiar sounds: Tobias scratching around the house, Gerry gently tapping at his keyboard. She walked through to the kitchen and put the shopping on the table, beside Gerry’s bags from earlier. Her heart sank at the thought of what lay inside. The last time he had been to the supermarket he came home with an industrial sack of glucose and 14 cans of dog food. Resisting the urge to yell at him, she peeked into the bulging bags. Jesus fucking Christ, Gerry.
She looked through her mail. Great Ormond Street had been in touch again, asking about Tobias’s missed appointment in March. Bloody doctors and their disapproving tone. It wasn’t their family that was catatonic, their husband who went round with his head up his arse, muttering about fallen angels and the end of days. She desperately wanted to see Tobias’ condition improve before he started school in September but the endless round of appointments had left her jaded. Another three hours in the waiting room, more heavy sighs from baffled doctors. “It’s difficult to say at his age…The latest studies on his condition have been inconclusive…Learning difficulties at this stage may be a sign of talents in other areas. Has he shown any leanings towards a musical ear?”. Daphne snorted at the memory. Yeah, now you mention it, he gave us a marvelous rendition of Great Balls of Fire on the harpsichord just the other day. Wankers.
Sweeping past her husband, she sat down with Tobias and stroked his little head. No matter how dark her mood, his happy manner always lifted her immediately. There was still that nagging fear of how Tobias would manage once he got to seven, eight, nine years old. Would he still be behind the other children then? How would he cope with long division, French irregular verbs, the square of the hypotenuse? She herself had been a brilliant student and when she met Gerry at university she had allowed herself fanciful notions of producing a brood of intellectual superstars; doctors, teachers, prime ministers…
If someone had told her then that her first-born would be still struggling to form words at three and a half, she would certainly have abandoned all plans to start a family. Now that she was a mum, blessed with the most adorable little boy, she could hardly believe that she had once been so shallow.
Daphne cradled Tobias into her arms and looked over at Gerry. She could see his temples twitching as he typed with increasing animation. No doubt he was formulating his latest plan for the impending apocalypse. When they had first met, he had seemed so strong, so resolute. She never could have imagined that he would react like this. Every man has his breaking point, her mother had said. Fuck off with your cliches, Mum, she had replied.
Lifting Tobias on to her knees, she turned away from Gerry. She could handle the awkward moments in the pub, the increasing distance from their mortified friends, the cold, unfeeling nights in bed. But the silence! If only he would just say something.