0034 | grammars of a conversation

‘Just hold on a minute, Matthew.’ It’s a brusque non sequitur that establishes many of our conversations on the phone. A grammatical anomaly; words that don’t naturally follow as a response to the answer and enquiring inflection of ‘Hello?’ The prolonged double-syllable form of my name has sounded strange to me for all of my adult life, but, as my mother, I understand why she should wish to preserve it. Pete is Peter. Dave is still David. We have each become so many things that she couldn’t have foreseen – that she might not have chosen for us – but by continuing with the names she christened us with, we remain first and foremost her children. I like that she retains that particular privilege.

There is the dull-pitched sound of skin being scraped by plastic – the mouthpiece as it brushes against her cheek or becomes muffled by the cup of her palm – and she puts the phone down. I hear the clunk of the handset against the top of the pine cabinet, then the drag of plastic across the wood as the coiled cable retracts, elastically, back towards the phone. The noise from the television is obscenely loud. She didn’t expect an answer. She rang with no hope of reply or acknowledgement. (The answering machine never did serve as that acknowledgement for her, and she likewise stopped acknowledging it many years ago. Ever since, it fires on and shuts off merely to mock her efforts and accumulate our guilt.) So, indeed, why bother to limit the noise of the television when there will be no one to complain about that noise at the other end of the line? But I answered, which she neither expected nor was prepared for. And so now she moves towards that first noise, to silence that which threatens to drown everything else, in order to return and receive the sound and company of her son.

I press my ear to the receiver to hear everything; both the sounds and the images of what she is doing, and the objects she is passing. Left to manage independently, one sense will begin to compensate for all of those others that are missing, and as I listen to her journey across the floor, she triggers a change to the volume setting of each of those images – the images that make up the room in which the medium of phone is but one small part. And so I see her, clearly, turn her back on the cabinet on which the phone sits. The cabinet, with its slender glass doors which slide open and shut, but which are almost forever kept shut – the cabinet will show her reflection. She is stooped forward, into her frame, her shoulders peaking higher than the crown of her head. The cabinet shows me the trodden-down heels of her slippers too. Behind the reflection that lives in those thin, transparent panes, there is yet more glass: glass shelves, upon which sit glass ornaments and glass bottles and sherry glasses; and a menagerie of painted porcelain cats, birds and mice; and china tea cups and saucers; and commemorative plates and decorative vases. An array of breakable trinkets and keepsakes, sat upon breakable shelves, behind breakable doors: a display case of mishmash fragility. It’s a world inhabited by charity-shop bargains, heirloom mementoes and the limited-edition, hand-crafted vulgarities of promised happiness from the Sunday tabloid supplements. The cabinet is perhaps as sad a place as any within her home.

Despite the noise of the TV, I can just about make out the scuffing sound of her slippers across the linoleum. I remember once at her house, as she came to greet me at the door, hearing that same sound and looking down to see not her slippers, but her naked feet instead: the calloused skin carrying out a cruel impersonating percussion upon the floor. Today, the sound is too distinctly that of smooth leather sanding across the tiles. I listen harder and, as I do, that single sense again reminds that it is performing the work of other senses as my eyes shrink and strain to magnify my vision. I begin cursing the ambient sounds at both ends of the phone. I try to count the number of steps I can hear. That is to say that I slide a bead across the abacus of my mind, pushing one after another, but am not able to bear tallying them, not able to accept that each extra step will mark the truth of her decline. Each step is these days accompanied by the release of a sound; little more than the slightest vocal tic or a cleared impediment from the throat. I hear the thud and creak of the walking frame; the frame which wasn’t there a year ago but is now the sole enabler of every step she takes both inside and outside the house.

Suddenly there is quiet. For just a second it’s as though the room has been switched off. At the same time that I lose all sound, I lose all vision too. Then it comes again, and once more I hear the shuffle of her feet, returning towards the phone. And I see it all too, this time not reflected through the glass, but seen as though standing next to the phone and waiting for her to reach me. A noise from my daughter distracts and I lose contact for another second or two; a further break in transmission. I try to concentrate again and when I return I’m back to something more abstract, hearing everything as the reversal of those sounds from fifteen seconds or so ago. I hear each shuffled step become undone. I hear each aching creak of body and frame disappear into the white of a new space in my mind. Each sound becomes none-sound. Each second counts down, not up. Each bead on the abacus retraces its glide across the wire; slides backwards from the right to where it began on the left.

Different sounds begin a new phase of our ‘call’. She begins to mutter, although it’s more the prelude to a conversation than a soliloquy of any consequence: words half intended, half loud enough for me. I hear the screech and thud of her frame again. A year ago, it was the single thump of her stick, but the frame telegraphs her struggle far more brutally and it’s a message received more loudly and clearly with each new reprise. By the time she has nearly arrived back to the phone, I’m almost entirely inside her world – that room, and inside her head – despite not yet having exchanged any words of value. I close my eyes, shutting down one sense, somehow lessening the discomfort. As she picks up the phone, the volume drops on everything. Those glass doors, so brittle and so rarely opened. That assortment of contrasting ugly objects inside. A place where order is lacking. I know there’s not much more now, beyond platitudes and pleasantries, beyond the usual questions and answers – an order of words that never seems to refresh. Everything erased, engulfed by that white space, ready to start hearing and speaking and seeing again.

‘Sorry, Matthew, just had to turn the TV down. How are you, my love?’

‘I’m fine. I’m fine, thanks, Mum. How are you?’

Reader Comments

  1. You rescue me here. maybe every time I read what you write you do that. It’s your senses, the way you weave inside and out of a beautiful tragedy where I just need to hear her.

    There. there she is.

    “How are you, my love?”

    Gorgeous. beautiful. thank you.

  2. Do we the reader view the glass cabinet as life? Or is it just this reader? Objects once of value-shiny, polished, brand new- grow old, decay, are worthless, no longer have meaning. There is a profound sadness viewing a life in the reflection and disarray of a fragile glass display. So much is processed in moments, terrible truths. Repulsed by the decline of the physical body, needing the distraction of youth, of new life, to connect to a brighter world, perhaps, even to run. I believe this sentence speaks this: ” A noise from my daughter distracts and I lose contact for another second or two; a further break in transmission.”

    “Those glass doors, so brittle and so rarely opened. That assortment of contrasting ugly objects inside. A place where order is lacking. I know there’s not much more now, beyond platitudes and pleasantries, beyond the usual questions and answers – an order of words that never seems to refresh.”

    But, if I may be so bold to ask, on whose part?

    This piece is so complex, scattered, the emotions near to brimming over, but shut off, closed as the brittle glass doors of the cabinet in your mother’s house. My parents have passed on, too young, but there is a moment I remember clearly before my father’s heart surgery. I mustered up the words: I love you. The undemonstrative nature of my family made this a Herculean task. There was clutter and chaos between us, as there will be in all relationships, but those words absolved and opened up brittle glass doors. Nothing more was said, but it was everything. I tell my children everyday that I love them.

    As writer so much is revealed. I thank you for your bravery and honesty. I hope my interpretation is close to the writer’s intent. Forgive me if it is not.

  3. Oh Matt, as I read this, I saw not your mother but mine, with her own increasing frailty, her own glass cabinet (hers is full of china frogs) and her own way of making a telephone call seem almost too much but never enough.
    So skilfully written, so very very moving.

  4. Shea:
    It’s lovely to receive your comments on these pieces. I’m touched that they move you.

    Zainab:
    That’s a lovely comment, thank you.

    Kimberly:
    Thank you for such a thoughtful response and interpretation of this Fragment. It’s very interesting to see how you read it. Alas, the cabinet and its belongings are not intended as metaphor though I see how they could easily be seen as such. As for the distraction of youth, there is always that. But there are always too many distractions, beautiful, ugly, necessary or not. I don’t know that there are any larger messages intended with these pieces, but you see the honesty and for that I’m very grateful. A commitment to truth is really the only claim for them that I would make.

    Sharon:
    It’s always so fascinating to find mirrors and as nice to look into yours as to read of you looking into mine. Thanks for such a kind comment.

  5. My mother is gone now, but the whole ritual, and it was a ritual, of the ‘phone call,’was played out in my life for many years. Your ‘ritual’ with your mum is so beautifully written and so very clearly drawn that I shared every moment with you and your mum.

  6. I read this on a very busy afternoon, looking for a small break in a swirl of “must do this and must do that.” As I read, everything around me dropped away. I was completely immersed, straining to hear what you were hearing, visualizing the curio cabinet, absorbing the click of the beads on he mental abacus. Those final lines, though so simple, are spellbinding. I haven’t been so moved and so transported by a story in a long time.

  7. Matt, I could see your mother and all around her so clearly, not because it reminded me of my mother, she is actually nothing like this, full of more energy and vitality than me, but because your words were so perfectly strung together that it was impossible not to see and feel and hear what you have written.

    You have such a wonderful way of taking the smallest interval of time and pulling it out like elastic, examining it from every angle. This is why I love reading your posts. They teach me something; how to be a better writer.

  8. Matt,
    This is the best thing you have written. That picture of brittle frailty was beautifully done. Why is it that as we get old we surround ourselves with similarly fragile things? Really liked this a lot Matt. Thank you.
    Philip

  9. matt this fragment is so powerful in it’s ability to take me to a place i have never been. my admiration for how you see and hear everything only grows, that you can not over look or walk by or not feel what so many people would not even realize. i feel that it can be such incredible gift but one that comes with a burden of holding on, feeling things eleven times more than the next. i do hope when you write these incredible fragments or even as you process them, they become lighter less opaque more transparent, no longer forming solid walls but more like a gentle fog that can be walked through allowing you to move forward.

  10. This is the best piece I’ve read in quite some time now; a brilliant description. It’s very touching and I’m really glad that I’ve discovered your blog.

  11. OpinionsToGo:
    Thanks, Joanne. I think this phone-call ritual is probably common to many. It’s lovely to know you found it so clearly drawn, thank you.

    Mary-Colleen:
    What a lovely comment, thank you. I had about three or four different lines written in my mind to end the piece; but they were all lines which extended ‘beyond’ this ‘moment’. The two lines that I settled on were quite literally the closing of this fragment, so it pleases me you liked them.

    Bill:
    That’s a very kind comment, and from you it’s one that flatters me greatly. Thank you.

    Philip:
    That pleases me greatly, thank you. I am stocking up on sturdy, heavy things whilst I’m young!

    Nadia:
    I hope you know that each comment from you fills me with the same joy that you find in reading these. You are always so very kind and thoughtful with your words about them. You get inside these pieces and I’ve come to know that we share so many common feelings, and see things in the same way. I’ll always be grateful to have you along for the journey.

    Tamara:
    It’s so nice to see new commenters here, so thank you for coming to read and for such a lovely comment; I hope you’ll hang around for many Fragments to come.

  12. A beautiful and moving piece, Matt. This fragment takes me back to my last visit with my grandfather, knowing then it would be my last, but hoping it wouldn’t. I wanted to remember every moment I spent with him and tried to keep a diary during my visit, but words failed me. I simply turned to my camera for still and moving images. Nearly one year on, I haven’t been able to bring myself to view them. After reading this piece, I will. Perhaps, the words will come to light. Thank you for sharing your fragments. They, you inspire me.

  13. The rain is slipping down the glass next to me. It transforms the window into some rippling portal, for a moment seeming like glass heated to the melting point. As the others have said, your “display case of mishmash fragility” stopped my heart for a beat. How many of those cases we all have seen…and hoped not to inherit. The years embodied by bits of brittle crystal that still glitter beneath the dust. The fear that I will one day be left with only such.

    You amaze me.

    I’m going to call my mother now.

  14. Grace:
    Every comment here is a gift, but ones like yours are awfully humbling. Thank you so much. I really hope you do take a look at those photos and would really love to know how you find that experience.

    Chantel:
    You paint such vivid pictures of how you read these Fragments; I’m always very, very touched. Thank you.

  15. I thought I would read it after dinner, but then I read the first line, and the next and the next, till ‘I’m fine, thanks, Mum. How are you?’
    You splinter a moment so beautifully, so truthfully, yet with such great responsibility, Matt – it’s a privilege to be invited into something so personal. I heard the scrape of skin, the pull of the plastic cord, the walking frame. I saw the chaos of the cabinet. It was slow and soaked with detail, but somehow it made me feel like I was standing still in the middle of a time-lapse film.
    Thank you.

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