This column was supposed to be about Massive Attack, but I couldn’t review their gig as I couldn’t hear it. Let’s rewind a little. My last column ended with me on a train, casually noting that my eardrum had just perforated. It is two weeks later now and I am still deaf. Or, deaf in one ear, which for someone used to full hearing, feels like being pretty deaf.
It’s not the first time my ears have let me down in this way. In fact, it’s the fourth. As a child I was always getting ear infections, but I remember the worst one vividly. I crept into my mum’s bed, where I was so rarely allowed; the intense pain led her to give me one of her codeine tablets, and next morning, there was blood on the pillow where I had lain my head. The GP rebuked her: “Why didn’t you bring this child to see me sooner?” But she was of that pre-NHS generation, and didn’t like to bother the doctor. We went only when things got nasty.
The second time my eardrum burst was as a teenager, and in a kind of fever-pitch of drama it happened the same night I first told a boy I loved him (which I didn’t really, but it seemed like an exciting thing to say, so perhaps the ear was my punishment).
The third time was the most glamorous, and happened while I was having dinner in The Ivy. Increasing pain and pressure in my ear foretold doom, and sure enough, with a little ping, or squeak, my eardrum gave way, and I called for a taxi home.
So on that train a couple of weeks ago, I knew exactly what was happening. My ear had been blocked all morning, and I’d washed down a Sudafed with a ginger shot in Pret a Manger, then caught the train to my next book reading. That night I sat on stage chatting while blood trickled down the side of my face. Next morning I admitted defeat, and headed home.
I’m on the mend, but the hearing loss remains for now. And I feel, yes, old. A bit of a bore, a nuisance, asking everyone to repeat themselves, jokingly saying “Pardon?” every other sentence. My head feels enormous, my ear pulses loudly, and although the loss of one sense is supposed to heighten others, I feel the opposite – unbalanced and wobbly, lacking in spatial awareness. Most shockingly, I am very quickly starting to feel isolated, locked away inside myself.
At home convalescing, I watch things on the telly that I’ve seen before – Lovesick, Fleabag, Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. The familiarity is reassuring – I know what’s coming so can “hear” it better. Even so, I have the subtitles on.
After ten days in bed, and two courses of antibiotics, I get back on the book tour, and head up to Liverpool. The view from the train window is a silent blur, and although I’m technically in the wrong coach, it’s still the Quiet Zone. Ringtones and business conversations, the intrusive irritations of most journeys, are softened and muted, dulled to the level where they don’t distract me from my reading. So that’s a plus.
But honestly, everything else is a minus, and is giving me a lot of insight into how you navigate the world with a minor disability. The effort involved, just to appear normal, and to interact in a more or less normal way. It’s exhausting.
I can hear noise, but not detail, and words are detail, so I’m starting to avoid conversation. And as detail has vanished, sound itself seems to have become cacophonous, almost painful. In the hotel restaurant, the usual background hum of chatter, the chink of glasses and cutlery, is shrill and overwhelming. Upstairs, in the peace of my room, the silence is gentle, easy on my ear, a blessed relief.
I remember how my dad stopped wanting to go out to restaurants, as he couldn’t hear us above the surrounding din. And he used to say that he felt scared at night when he took his hearing aid out. God, I understand that now. And I think guiltily of my deaf grandma; how as a child I shied away from speaking to her on the phone, being embarrassed by my mum in the background saying, “Speak up, Speak up!”
I’ve learnt my lesson. There’s nothing funny about it.
This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash