Many years ago, after an operation to remove something fibrous from my spine, a lovely Irish nurse came into my room. She had a chubby pink face and Harry Potter specs. I was crying with relief at the positive prognosis I’d just been given. She swept me up and laid my streaky face on the ample slope of her bosom.
‘There there,’ she cooed, ‘now don’t you feel a lot better when you hear it straight from the doctor’s ears?’ I did.
Ears are funny. I mean, we seem willing to joke about deafness in a way we wouldn’t about blindness. At school in the Fifties, every class had a kid with their ears full of oily cotton wool. At home there was always talk of tonsils coming out (which led to ice cream) and grommets going in (which would, I suppose, eventually lead to Wallace).
My own ears are in pretty good nick, which cannot be said for my patience — and both my late husband Jack and my ‘young swain’, as I like to call my partner, have rightly objected to the withering note in my voice when they ask me to repeat myself.
‘I said, “Do you want rice or potatoes with your steak?”’
Heavy pause. ‘I SAID…’ (booming like Mr Noisy) “Rice or potatoes?” ’
‘Oh yes. Nice later.’
A whole day of such exchanges can generate a tension that makes the rice or potatoes lie on one’s chest like an anvil. Mostly though, my incredibly good-natured chap and I laugh at our predicament. I often ask him why he bends his head down when I speak as if he were visiting royalty.
‘So that I can hear you,’ he says mildly.
‘But surely if you watched my lips you’d pick up more of what I’m saying.’
‘Well I can’t do both. You’d think I was permanently agreeing with you.’
He gets by with hearing aids, but they are now so invisible and adjustable that they require a weekend course to learn how they function and, when lost, a Hubble telescope to locate them. Some have different settings for parties, fringe theatres and restaurants with tessellated tiling. They are sleek, chic and far from cheap. Once, my dog ate one. ‘Does that mean she can hear through her stomach now?’ asked my daughter.
It was at parties that Jack became most discombobulated. I’d see him nodding and smiling and offering responses to conversations of which he’d heard only the first and last syllable. Also — unlike me and my daughter, who can handle a baby, a dog, and someone sluicing out the dishwasher while smoothly gossiping down the line about the latest developments in Ambridge — Jack was entirely unable to receive and pass on information when he was on the telephone.
‘Tell her we can meet them at seven,’ I’d call out across the kitchen.
‘Hang on a minute,’ he’d say. ‘Maureen’s trying to tell me something.’
Then he’d lower the phone and ask: ‘What did you say, love?’
I’d repeat it with my characteristic forbearance, and only then would he be able to relay the message to the person holding on.
Once, on holiday with another aurally challenged couple, we had to strategically plan our seating in cars and restaurants:
‘No look, if Gerry sits by the wall, then you’ve got his good ear and if Jack and I change places and you move round to face my left, and I have my back to the wall, then I’ll be able to catch what you’re saying obliquely when you talk across to Gerry.’
There you go, job done. This same couple still potter around England contentedly chatting about referendums and the price of sand-blasters — but when they hit the continent in a left-hand drive they are forced by ear arrangements to motor on in silence.
There’s lately been a spate of disturbed ear-waves among my dearest and nearest. My daughter likes a swim every day but her ears don’t. She has narrow ear canals, so every few months they block up, despite the fact that she swims almost upright with her head above the water like a stately otter. Periodically, she goes to a private clinic and has her ears ‘micro-hoovered’. It’s a walk-in service which costs an arm and a smidgeon of leg but, what the hell, it gives you back an ear.
Meanwhile, one of her friends has either ‘Sudden Onset Hearing Loss’ or Meniere’s disease, depending on first and second opinions. She’s dizzy and disoriented with clanging tinnitus. I sent her to my miracle acupuncturist and she’s slowly recovering, but the ringing still arrives like church bells as soon as she sits up in the morning.
Years ago I helped to cure another tinnitus–afflicted friend by sending her to acupuncture and cranial osteopathy. One of them worked but we never knew which. After the treatments her nose began running with a grainy substance. In the end — in the absence of a medical diagnosis — we worked out that it was a residue of the fixative she habitually used to seal dried flower arrangements for her floral display business. She gave up the business shortly afterwards and went into psychotherapy. Less dangerous — if more arduous — for the ears.
Of course it’s only when one’s own ears block up with water or wax, or start to play the tubular bells without your consent, that you can even begin to understand the frustration and curious isolation of not hearing.
‘Doctor, Doctor, I think I’m going deaf.’
‘Really? What are the symptoms?’
‘A little yellow family on TV, but what’s that got to do with my problem?’
Maureen Lipman is appearing in My Mother Said I Never Should at the St James Theatre until 21 May.