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?’