First: the backstory. I’m slowly going deaf. No one knows why. First doctor blamed rock’n'roll. Next one blamed my genetics. I’m still waiting for video games and teen sex to be indicted. They all agree that it’s irreversible. Just shitty luck. Today I went to have some phones fitted – something I’ve been putting off for quite a few years.
The audiologist has a soft face and clean, nimble hands. His examination room is a brightly-lit white cube buried in a North London basement with a soundproof isolation chamber in the corner like a phonebox you’d go into to avoid speaking to someone. On his desk is a laptop and an anonymous block of proprietary hardware with a pop-up speaker. Cables snake across the desk to the isolation booth and back again. We did the whole isolation chamber thing last time. Result was the same as it was five years ago: my ears are remarkably, irreparably, buggered.
The doc takes out two drops of beige (Christ, why does it have to be beige?) plastic and flicks open the battery tray. He plugs two slender orange ribbons into the battery tray. As he does, the beige lumps squawk out in protest, like little birds. The orange ribbons plug into two more wires that lead into the laptop. Then he pulls out another device, a fat black coathanger bent into a serifed U, like the doctor’s end of a stethoscope. I can see is going to hang from my head in some way. It has two thumb drives which will eventually sit around the same height as my ears. Each of the thumb drives gets threaded with a plastic whisker at one end and a PS/2 cable at the other, which leads into the speakerbox. The speaker box starts to squelch at the coathanger, a continuous gargling note that starts low and blindly feels its way higher, higher, higher. I imagine a plastic loudspeaker is shimmying out of the ground somewhere to announce that it’s “time for tubby bye bye”.
When it’s done gargling, I take a seat in front of the speakerbox, the stethoscope hanging from my head. The machine starts spitting white noise at me, tsshh! tsshh! tsshh!, like channel hopping on a detuned TV. It uses the stethoscope to listen to itself, to hear what I hear. It seems pleased with the result. The doc picks up the little phones and they warble and whistle as he cradles them in his hand. The little songbirds join the stethoscope in my ears. The pulses of static start again, and the noise is loud. My face twitches involuntarily. I close my eyes and wish that I could close my ears. Tsshh! tsshh! TSSHH! To distract myself, I try to keep track of the nested layers of bugging going on in the room. I can hear the machine with my cloth ears. The songbirds also listen to the machine and tell me what they hear. The stethoscope eavesdrops on the birds and tells the machine what they said. I listen to all of this and get a headache. Somewhere behind me the nurse scatters ball bearings on a metal tray. Above us, a canvas sail rasps as it slides endlessly over the room. Everything is saturated in reverb.
“How does it sound?”
“Like we’re sitting in a tin can.”
“Good, then they’re working perfectly.”
The doc tells me I have to retrain my brain to hear sound properly. For too long, everything I hear has been wrapped up in velvet, and now my internal equaliser is out of whack. His words jangle like chain links thrown on a tin roof. He asks his assistant to show me how to use the phones. When she talks, there’s a tiny delay between the velvet sound from my ears and the metallic commentary from the songbirds. At least I think there is. It’s hard to tell. My brain is struggling to assimilate the two versions of events that it hears. It decides instead that I am listening to two different rooms somehow superimposed on eachother in 3D space, like a double image on a TV screen. The doc’s room is a collapsed hypercube. I’m aurally tuned to the fourth dimension. The two nurses give me a fistful of batteries, a manual, a case for each of the phones, and some blue plastic wire to clean them which looks identical to the blue plastic wire the other doctor here used last week to stitch up a hole he’d cut in me. And just like that, I’m discharged.
As I creep with trepidation through the clinic, pens click, feet tap, machines beep, doors click, and all these sounds chase me like gravel pouring down a metal flume. The door opens and we all land on the street outside, opposite a small park. The first thing I hear is birdsong. Not the fretful whistling of my phones, but real, genuine birdsong. I don’t remember hearing that when I went in. I can hear thousands of leaves nudge against each other softly in the breeze. Above it all, that mysterious canvas sail is still being pulled along. I don’t know what it is. The wind? Distant traffic? Some white noise artifact of the phones? It sounds like the collective sigh of the city, like the blue sky rasping softly as it rolls westward over the horizon. A cyclist goes past, chain ticking. I walk toward Highbury and Islington tube station.
The noise of the busy street outside the station is disorientating. I can hear snatches of conversation at distances I’m not used to, so I keep glancing over my shoulder to avoid walking into people who, it turns out, are safely well behind me. The entrance to the station is a Victorian cotton mill, an absolute cacophony of automatic gates cracking open and shut, cards slapping on turnstiles, machines bleeping, receipts tearing. I hurry past all this and into the subway tunnel. I hear more noises I can’t place. Someone is clapping, perhaps just around the corner of the tunnel. On the platform, the train announces its arrival with sound layered on sound, a rushing wave that crashes over me when it’s still at a distance before I realise I’m listening to the train pulling in on the opposite platform. The rails under the train on my side start to yelp and warble like power lines, a sound that continues as I’m buffeted by the wind onboard. I figure out that it is the wind, rushing over the songbirds in my ears and driving them a little mad. I step off the train and walk toward the exit. I hear a heavy suitcase thumping down the stairs behind me, in front of me, but it’s just footfall. Further down the tunnel, I follow a repetitive click click click like fingers snapping. I never find the source of the noise.
All the sounds I’ve been missing out on have become unfamiliar objects in my ears. My brain weighs them and turns them over and inspects them, but doesn’t know what they are. I guess it misattributes some of them, which accounts for the phantom noises, and leaves the rest unlabelled. The accumulated weight of this miscellaneous noise starts to wear me down. It’s a constant orchestra of unknowable sound above my head. I try covering my ears but that makes the songbirds squeal. I resist the urge to tear them out. I wonder if parts of my brain were liberated by the lack of sensory input and are now being press-ganged back into service by the electric songbirds in my ears, because I feel mentally exhausted and slightly nauseous. I want to call in to work sick. I decide to sit in a park for a few minutes to rest.
Someone has let a bored teenager into the Foley artist’s suite of my mind. My shoes ring like milk bottles on the paving stones. I kick a leaf and it makes a sound like a crisp packet. Birds tweet obscenely. They swoop from tree to tree and I can hear the tips of their wings pressing together. A man on the other side of the park pops the lid of a soft drink with a rifle crack. Above it all, the strange sighing rasp is still there, breaking waves of an ocean suspended above me. I reach up and pull out the songbirds. The ocean above me collapses instantly, crashes down as cotton wool, insulates me from all that unnecessary noise. Silence presses in on me. I feel swaddled and safe again.
I pull the little silver disc hearts out of my songbirds so they’ll sleep quietly inside their case. The doc says the more I wear the phones, the quicker my brain will adjust. I can’t say I’m eager to get started.