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Listening to the sounds of my quiet neighbourhood during circuit breaker

CNA Lifestyle’s new Circuit Breaker Diaries series features musings on Singapore life in the time of coronavirus. First up: How the new silence is music to one person’s ears.

The community centre’s basketball court is right behind my house in Tiong Bahru and it is usually a hive of activity.

It begins early in the morning, when a few enthusiastic single dribblers bounce and thump their basketballs off the backboard. Just past 7am on weekends, their irregular rhythm draws me inevitably out of dreaming.

READ: Circuit Breaker Diaries: A week in the life of someone stuck at home with virtual yoga aunties

On weekday evenings, tai chi music blares from tinny speakers as a class of practitioners don their white robes and move gracefully under the spotlights. What the tai chi instructor fails to realise is that the basketball court is surrounded on all four sides by low-rise residential units.

Like in a cruel amphitheatre, the sound reverberates and amplifies, distorting its way into my kitchen.

READ: Circuit Breaker Diaries: Ode to my neighbourhood barber and all the ghosts of haircuts past

Now, however, a cordon has gone up all around the court. Red and white tape stretches from the rim of the hoop to the ground, keeping errant stragglers from the satisfaction of making illegal baskets. In this newfound silence, nature muscles in.

A haiku written by Marc Nair during the circuit breaker period. (Photo: Marc Nair)

We’re living in a new kind of quiet, and I’m tuning in to other sounds I’ve never heard before.

There’s more than just the one stray bird in the morning, hopping onto its regular branch and replacing our jarring alarms. Now, there are three to four different species, warbling different tunes; some are melodious, some recede and then return, a gentle pulsing.

We’re living in a new kind of quiet, and I’m tuning in to other sounds I’ve never heard before.

I am no ornithologist, but I understand the joy that they are feeling, the pleasures of cleaner air and undisturbed flight.

There’s far less traffic on the street. None of the backfiring sports cars that regularly park illegally have come by to partake of the famous cornershop porridge. There are more delivery vans, though, and once in a while the car park becomes a haven for Grab drivers on their lunch break, sharing a meal at the limits of safe distancing.

Their conversation drifts over to where I sit on my balcony ledge, watching the sun blaze its undaunted way through the soft yellow petals that adorn the tarmac at this time of year.

As the day draws longer, snippets of conversation from the neighbours drift upwards, like the scent of fried fish in belachan. Someone is having a telephone call with the speaker on, a crackle of compressed Hokkien squeezes out in surprising bursts. A couple is having a friendly argument about what to cook for dinner on their doorstep; their crisp British accents remind me of London and other unreachable cities.

In our distancing, we have lost more than just a sense of social proximity to each other; we have forgotten what we have taken for granted; a gluttonous era of cheap travel, pushing the frequency of our trips beyond nature’s viable bandwidth, hailing an incessant crisscrossing of the globe in the name of new experiences. Perhaps now is a time for stasis, for slumber.

It’s so quiet in the estate that I can hear the rats chattering. The lack of pedestrian traffic has made them bold.

It’s so quiet in the estate that I can hear the rats chattering. The lack of pedestrian traffic has made them bold, ignoring social distancing as they ravage the dustbins and recycling bins. They seem to be growing larger too, feeding at will, lording over the storm drains and the back alleys.

One night, there is an insistent howling. A fluffy black cat with a collar is challenging the neighbourhood stray, whose domain is the community centre. They growl at each other, spitting cat expletives as they stare each other down in the aftermath of a thunderstorm. I put on my mask, go downstairs to break up their yowling, passing a bevy of rats scuttling by. They must be on their way to their annual GM.

Auntie, who lives upstairs, is banging on a pot again. It’s either that or she is defrosting a slab of beef with a cleaver. But she’s rather old and lives alone. I’m not sure if she can even hear herself playing this atonal scale. But it’s okay, not everything needs to be resolved.

This new silence isn’t just about external sounds. I’m also learning to listen to myself.

This new silence isn’t just about external sounds. I’m also learning to listen to myself. There have been storms in the afternoon of late. Working from home, one small affordance is the chance to nip into the bedroom for a power nap, lulled by the patter of rain on the zinc roof.

It evokes an embodied memory (older than myself, certainly!) of the kampung, of long, lazy afternoons when the world did not need a global pandemic to slow down.

Being alone does not mean being lonely. In these days of going out individually for essentials, the space that is created by parties of one, bereft of conversation, should be filled by something other than a smartphone. Unfortunately, wherever I turn, there seems to be a glut of people glued to their screens, headphones plugged in. When fully masked, all of the senses are occupied. It’s no wonder people can barely walk straight!

Once this is all over, let’s not be too quick to fill up the space we’ve been given with familiar fallbacks. Let’s embrace this quiet that has descended like a great flock of migratory birds upon us. And when the decibel levels rise again as they inevitably will, maybe we should make a choice to imbibe silence, making space to better our sense of hearing.

Marc Nair is a poet and photographer. He has published 10 collections of poetry.

Source: CNA/mm