Bella Bathurst

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - OPINION - Bella Bathurst is a writer and fur­ni­ture maker liv­ing in Wales. Her book Sound: A Mem­oir of Hear­ing Lost and Found, will be pub­lished by Grey­stone Books in Oc­to­ber.

on what it’s like to go deaf

It seemed like such a small thing, but our pri­or­i­ties seemed to be pulling apart: My friends and col­leagues wanted to catch up and have some­thing de­cent to eat. I just wanted to know whether they were speak­ing English.

What Bella Bathurst learned af­ter 12 years of deaf­ness

Ihad a cou­ple of head in­juries when I was in my 20s, and, soon af­ter the sec­ond one, I started to go deaf. The de­cline wasn’t im­me­di­ate – it wasn’t as if one minute I had full hear­ing and the next I had noth­ing – but a steady fall­ing-off of sound, day upon day. It would be good to say that it was the de­cline of chil­drens’ voices or the si­lenc­ing of my boyfriend’s laugh that forced me to do some­thing about it, though to be hon­est, it wasn’t. In­stead, it was the fear of be­ing un­pro­fes­sional. At the time, I was work­ing as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, and had just started writ­ing my first book, an ac­count of the Steven­son fam­ily of en­gi­neers. Much of my time was spent in ar­chives go­ing through fam­ily pa­pers, but my re­search also took me out to the dark­est cor­ners of Scot­land to in­ter­view the last gen­er­a­tion of light­house keep­ers. Keep­ers, I soon dis­cov­ered, fell into two dis­tinct cat­e­gories: un­stop­pable, silent. Ei­ther all I had to do was switch on the tape recorder and let it flow, or I was there for hours, tweez­er­ing out each in­di­vid­ual word. But when I tran­scribed the in­ter­views af­ter­ward, I no­ticed how of­ten I had mis­heard or leapt in at the wrong mo­ment. Ad­mit­tedly, some of the in­ter­views had been con­ducted out­side, and light­houses are high and windy places. Even so, there seemed to be a lot of gaps. All the grace of a con­ver­sa­tion had gone, and now there was only a se­ries of jolt­ing ob­ser­va­tions. I could hear how hard I was try­ing, but I could hear how hard the keep­ers were try­ing, too – the note of be­muse­ment in their voice when I failed to pick up on some­thing they’d said, or came back with some­thing com­pletely un­re­lated. It was frus­trat­ing, sit­ting there at my desk, turn­ing the vol­ume up on my own mis­takes. Every time I lis­tened to one of the tapes, I could hear – at top vol­ume, and as many times as I chose to re­peat it – just ex­actly how many times I hadn’t been able to hear. At the lo­cal Na­tional Health Ser­vice au­di­ol­ogy clinic, they told me I was in­deed go­ing deaf and that I had al­ready lost around half my hear­ing in both ears. They fit­ted me with a pair of hear­ing aids, and, for the next 12 years, that was pretty much it. Though I didn’t re­al­ize it at the time, deaf­ness is a com­mon prob­lem, as is not talk­ing about deaf­ness. Ab­so­lute fig­ures are hard to come by, but in Bri­tain an es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion peo­ple – nearly one in six – have some form of hear­ing loss. The same is true else­where. In Canada, 3.2 mil­lion do, and in the United States 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are partly deaf­ened. In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, hear­ing loss is age-re­lated; around 40 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion over 40 ex­pe­ri­ence hear­ing loss, and around 70 per cent of those over 70 do. I was among the 2 per cent who had lost their hear­ing young. But as it slipped away, I re­al­ized some­thing odd. I’d just as­sumed that, as I be­came deafer, things would grad­u­ally just get qui­eter and qui­eter, as if every year some­one were slid­ing an­other layer of glaz­ing into the space be­tween me and the world. But this wasn’t like that. Yes, the vol­ume was def­i­nitely go­ing down, but the odd thing was that deaf­ness wasn’t mak­ing me less aware of sound, it was mak­ing me more. Hav­ing been in­dif­fer­ent to acous­tics, I was now – well, not ob­sessed with them ex­actly, but they cer­tainly seemed to oc­cupy a lot more space in my life. I’d never re­ally thought about the dif­fer­ence be­tween the sound in a room with high ceil­ings and a room with low ceil­ings, or why it was that some streets sounded softer than oth­ers. Did it re­ally mat­ter if you sat in the big main room of a pub or squeezed into one of the snugs? In hear­ing terms, was there much of a dis­crep­ancy be­tween a dou­bleglazed six­ties tower block and a sub­ur­ban house near a busy road? Lunch ap­point­ments were tricky. How could I say I’d rather meet in a place with coleslaw and no at­mos­phere than some­where where it might take me 20 min­utes to fig­ure out what the waiter had said? Was it bet­ter to go to a meet­ing in a shouty cof­fee chain and have peo­ple think you were a weirdo for star­ing fixedly at their lips the whole time, or con­fess and meet on a cold park bench like char­ac­ters in a spy novel? It seemed like such a small thing, but our pri­or­i­ties seemed to be pulling apart: My friends and col­leagues wanted to catch up and have some­thing de­cent to eat. I just wanted to know whether they were speak­ing English. By 2004, I had a part-time job work­ing in a pro pho­to­graphic lab in East London, and my reg­u­lar bus com­mute took me along one of the city’s main routes, the Maryle­bone Road. In Bri­tish Sign Lan­guage, the sign for London is the same as for noisy, though by the round-the­clock stan­dards of other great in­ter­na­tional cities – Mumbai, Buenos Aires, New York – London has a muf­fled qual­ity. Be­fore I lost my hear­ing, I’d loved the sound of this bit of the city. The shush of rain un­der tires over the roar of leaf blow­ers. The tick­ing of hot car metal. The un­syn­chro­nized click of stilet­tos. A pan­han­dler, prop­ping him­self up against the wall of the bank: “Yous! Gies yer change!” The col­lec­tive rush of trucks pass­ing. Frag­ments as peo­ple pass: “Most of salami is, like, don­key. Or some­times horse.” Two armed po­lice­men in stab vests and jack­boots, dis­cussing bar­gains on the QVC shop­ping chan­nel. The shud­der of the Metropoli­tan Line be­neath my feet. Tourists queu­ing out­side Madame Tus­sauds. Work­men putting up scaf­fold­ing; the flat notes of boards and poles be­ing set in place, the chink of the cou­plers thrown down on the pave­ment. The rat­tle of fight­ing mag­pies. “Yeah, well, he talks about it so much, it’s ob­vi­ous he’s a vir­gin.” Mu­si­cians wran­gling cof­fin-sized dou­ble basses over the road, yank­ing at their trol­leys be­fore the lights change. Some­where be­hind, the diesel-y snort of trains at each sta­tion. And far be­yond that, the sound of London breath­ing. In the morn­ings, I’d sit there on the top deck of the 205, lis­ten­ing to the schoolkids. “I was like, Un. Be­liev­able. I mean.” “Yeah, an’ re­ally I done my mum a Hol­ly­wood the other day.” “Like well sick yeah?” “Not like I mean what that’s wrong, but I’m say­ing by now you should be pee­ing orange.” “I mean, who de hell?” “He was like, y al­right? I was like, y al­right?” That was be­fore. And then there was af­ter. Imag­ine London turned down. Cut out the traf­fic. Cut the trees and the pi­geons. Cut the leaf blower, the trains, the smooth­ing rain. Cut the air brakes, the scaf­fold­ers, the click of heels. Cut the beep of a re­vers­ing truck or the bang of its shut­tered back. Cut the air-brake ex­ha­la­tion of the bus. Cut the kids out­side Madame Tus­sauds or the chat of passers-by. Cut the an­gle-grinder’s rushed com­plaint and the rise of a mo­tor­bike’s frus­tra­tion. Cut the tourists. Cut mu­sic. Cut con­ver­sa­tion. Cut Korean, Scot­tish, Ara­bic, Span­ish, English, Amer­i­can, French, Es­to­nian. Cut the oc­ca­sional shout over the traf­fic or the bark of a dog. Cut the shriek of a black cab’s brakes. Cut the whole lot. Cut every­thing ex­cept the sirens and the wails of un­changed ba­bies. Si­lence it all. Or rather, take it all down by about 80 per cent. Take out all of the juice and most of the pith. Re­move half the sense and flat­ten the rest. Leave what re­mains as a dis­con­nected se­quence of hisses and sibi­lants. The edges of sound are still there but the sense in its cen­tre has gone. I can still feel the vi­bra­tion of the bus and the win­dows shak­ing slightly as it stands. I can see the drills and the grinders but the sound is stopped off. None of this is un­pleas­ant or un­com­fort­able and, be­cause it’s hap­pened over a long time, I’ve adapted to it. But it is strange. I know some sounds be­cause I catch the end of them, like catch­ing the last words of a well­known quote or phrase. I can hear the edge of a diesel’s idling mo­tor not be­cause I can re­ally hear it, but be­cause my brain knows the sound of it so well it com­pletes the miss­ing phrases. I know the sta­tion an­nounce­ment is a sta­tion an­nounce­ment be­cause of the rhythm and the dis­tance, not be­cause of the words. But other sounds, dis­con­nected from their source and from any sur­round­ing links in the au­di­tory chain, make less sense. Half a word in a sen­tence. A slice of ring­tone. A shout. The clos­est anal­ogy would be to imag­ine putting on ear de­fend­ers and then lis­ten­ing to a ra­dio on the other side of the room. You can’t hear much, but you can hear the dif­fer­ence be­tween the fenced-in sen­tences of a news bul­letin and the ram­blings of chat. If it’s sport, you know ex­actly where the goals are in a match re­port or a horse race ris­ing to the fin­ish­ing post. When it got to the stand at Eus­ton Sta­tion, the bus would loi­ter for a while be­neath the con­crete canopy. Out­side on the fore­court were the usual mix­ture of trav­ellers, junkies, dog-walk­ers, tourists, skater kids and stu­dents. I’d look out the win­dow at all th­ese dif­fer­ent tribes and start to read. Those two, they look like they’re in love but it’s al­ways him who moves to­ward her. The man with his bag on the ground, talk­ing to the older guy. What’s their re­la­tion­ship to each other? Is there some kind of deal go­ing on? The re­tired cou­ple stand­ing slightly apart be­side their un­scuffed suit­cases. He moves stiffly, like he can’t move his neck, like there’s al­ways some­thing he doesn’t want to look at. Look at the queue for the 68. There’s nine peo­ple there. How come some of them re­ally stand out, and some seem al­ways to be part of the con­crete? I would watch all of this, and the longer I watched it, the more some­thing be­came ev­i­dent. I was see­ing all th­ese peo­ple, their in­ten­tions and anx­i­eties, and, four times out of five, I reck­oned I could make a rea­son­able guess at what was go­ing on. If I looked through the si­lence – re­ally looked, with the whole of my at­ten­tion – then I could see the whole hub­bub of in­ter­ac­tion. I could see the way home­less­ness ren­dered men in­vis­i­ble, or the sheer, cease­less 24-hour hard work the ad­dicts put in to feed­ing their needs. I could see the gap be­tween who peo­ple wanted to be, and where they re­ally were. The odd thing was, I couldn’t hear a thing, but I was hav­ing no dif­fi­culty in un­der­stand­ing every word. It wasn’t sound I was con­cen­trat­ing on any more; it was vi­sion. In here, I could get hooked on look­ing, I could stare to my heart’s con­tent, I could teach my­self a whole new com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I was still deaf, but I had found a way out.

ILLUSTRATION B YJ AMIE BEN­NETT

ILLUSTRATION B YJ AMIE BEN­NETT

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