April 2019, a Ladies loo.
We stand side by side at the basins, washing our hands – but the other woman’s really scrubbing hers, like Lady Macbeth. As well she might, because she’s about to commit a crime. I fish out a paper towel – a Handbag Essential; she turns to a machine on the wall. One of those hot-air hand-dryers, which make one of the most infernal dins ever invented. Make for the exit, fast.
Someone else would be more likely to flee from a dripping tap. It’s probably more hot air, but I have a Theory. It’s all to do with your natural base note and rhythm of being. If you rely on variety and company to replenish your energies, repetitive sound or experience will drain them. A lower-pitched person, who needs a source like solitude, will be super-sensitive to invasive noise – even if she knows it’s coming and that it won’t last for long… One person’s a flute, another a cello. The party animals next door, a set of drums.
Another pet provocation isn’t an sound at all, but a visual vibration: the sickly shade of turquoise on the front of every Barclays bank. The colour equivalent of a shout in your ear. So many shiny surfaces surround us now, reflecting and amplifying the sounds of the city. Easy-clean tables in restaurants, screens and walls of glass in open-plan offices. So few quiet and common places left. The child self who sought refuge in the public library – now a hive of interactivity – rarely goes there now.
Being dead doesn’t help; the local cemetery’s also an unquiet area. A young friend of mine gets regularly enraged there. Not by the toys and plastic flowers piled on some of the graves, but by the wind-chimes hanging above them. He gets quite Shakespearean about it….’sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh’…
It won’t do, though, to be too precious about these things. Some colours have to be loud, like red for danger. Some acoustic shocks have Higher Purposes – like smoke alarms, as long as you remember to dust them from time to time. The loudest cities are often the most seductive – like Cairo, or Paris. It may be quieter in Antarctica – and quieter still in a padded cell, but no one can live in such a place for long…
Noise pollution’s nothing new. Wealthy men, the owners of factories, once called it the sound of progress and profit. When my late partner’s mother was a girl, between the Wars, she worked in a Lancashire cotton mill. The clatter of the machinery was so deafening, it was impossible to communicate over it. She had to learn a sign language called ‘mee-maw’, which meant miming, lip-reading and making exaggerated movements with the mouth. No ear-defenders then, either – and her hearing paid the price.
Machines, of course, can’t help themselves. An ugly metallic object will produce a discordance to match; a road drill will judder because it must. A Man with a Message – and a megaphone – has no such excuse. The human right to be heard has its limits…
Oxford Circus, London, 2006 -2015
The pavement was his pulpit. He was there for years; you could hear him a mile off. A preacher with a loud-hailer booming at anyone passing by. His daily refrain: BE A WINNER, NOT A SINNER! He ignored all pleas, official or otherwise, to give it a rest. All he wanted to do, he said, was to save shoppers from themselves and bring them to Jesus. When Westminster Council finally lost patience and took him to court, an Anti-Social Order was imposed and he went away – to scream the Good News somewhere else.
And yet I too have disturbed the peace of others. Behind closed doors, but often and in the night, because I used to snore for England. My companions didn’t seem to mind, but I did. It was embarrassing, unfeminine and worse still – beyond my control. I tried all manner of remedies: sprays, chin straps, magnetic nose-strips, even acupuncture, but nothing worked. In the end, I went to a private clinic and had laser treatment on the back of my throat, which silenced my soft palate for good.
A single household’s a low-key soundscape, most of the time; few witnesses now to any music I make. I’m fond of cushions; soft furnishings absorb sound. The hum of the heating’s nice to come home to and if the old washing machine’s a bit operatic near the end of its cycle – and shakes it all about – at least it’s proof it’s still working. More time and chance today to listen in to the garden, other people and the wider world.
Which is just as well, because ‘there’s no peace for the wicked’ as an aunt used to say. There’s a type of sound-track that travels with you, wherever you are. Your own head is home to it. An invasion of space from the inside, a buzz or ringing in the ears called ‘tinnitus’. Mercifully, other waves and frequencies will often seem to balance or even tune it out – like the radio or caring conversation. And in the Great Scheme of Things, it’s of minor importance and better than hearing voices when there’s no one there….
Sometimes, there’s a strange other-worldly quality to the condition – as though I’m listening to the brain itself, the echoes of my mind. Find this idea quite interesting, but it could also be a glimpse of madness, so never follow it too far…
Turn instead to an age-old antidote to the Inexplicable. A cup of tea. Fill a brand new appliance with water, then wait for it to boil, bubble and squeak, which it does – and then some. It’s got to be the noisiest kettle on the planet. A jumbo jet in the kitchen!