I sometimes hear the sound of a soft saxophone outside my Berlin bedroom window. I regularly hear the mechanic moan of aeroplanes coming in to land. One lonely Sunday morning, I sat by the kitchen sill and watched the slow ripple of a red dawn. I suddenly heard the low drone of a lover wracked with betrayal. I was quickly doubled over with every single, physical rip of her emotional pain. This time, the constant humming in my right ear sounded different. I took a sharp intake of breath as she clawed at the air, then smashed through my breast bone, spreading her fingers like a spiked bullet inside my soul. Her husband, in contrast, said very little. The whole scene had been moved from behind closed doors and into a very public arena. She was grieving the absolute loss of their relationship. I could hear their unique cacophony of love ricochet across the communal courtyard, but still, it was picturesque. In my mind’s eye, I saw her reach for the sky in total desperation. She was in disbelief that this was her broken reality. It also occurred to me that what was once misconstrued as true love, had become the truth itself. The building bricks of my apartment block are forever steeped in her high-pitched, bitter diatribe. On first hearing her woeful cries, the speed of the panic borne out of the rapidly unfolding scenario only served to reaffirm that we come into this world alone and go out the same, if we so wish.
Noise is an unusual concept: You can’t hold it, touch it, or even see it, but it’s omnipresent for many of us. However, we are moulded and deeply moved by what we choose to listen to. It’s usually to do with what others say, be it through music, art, or even Pythagorus’s Theorem. The clatter of the latter on paper still makes my skin crawl: This particular equation only ever serves to remind me that threesomes, in all of their forms, are never as good in reality. Sometimes, even two is a crowd.
I think all of the time and constantly listen to the age-old words of others on a toxic loop. Their miserable owners also drift in and out of my memories without permission. These particular words were served up colder and harsher than any other form of revenge. Like those spat out by a bitter, middle-aged woman in the office who shouts at you because there isn’t an elevator in your apartment block, or the younger, but equally as damaged handsome devil who delivers a curled-lip sneer when you smile at him. Maybe you have heard the words sang by someone else’s child as they coax and cajole until they have fleeced you of all kindness, or those uttered by a mother who explains, with a self-satisfied smile, that you are totally dysfunctional for never giving birth. The dead also play a major role in this grisly, torturous game called ‘life’: Try spelling out the harsh words from a grandmother who still judges you because you never got married. It’s frustrating, no longer having right of reply. Add to this, the uncle who despises you because you stole his parents’ attention, or alternatively, the lover who picked you up by your throat because he “loves you”. There’s yet more: The girlfriend who declared that you are “worse than a man” and the Catholic headteacher who made it abundantly clear that you would never make it to university because, after all, you are just a ‘little bastard’.
That final slur brings back many dreadful memories, but I am also reminded of a much better, somehow gentle time in the mid-seventies. We used to watch a very British television programme called ‘Mr & Mrs’. I lapped it up like a displaced 1950s housewife at the tender age of five. I would grip the edge of the divan and smile sweetly at the television screen despite being painfully aware that my grandfather was supping yet another sly half. The nice man on the telly would ask a panel, made up of three married women, a range of questions which went something like this: Does your husband like his tea: a) with the milk in first b) with the milk in last, or c) with milk and sugar? Every time, without fail, my grandfather would smack his lips after taking a gargantuan glug of Guinness and declare my favourite programme “bloody rubbish!”. He still sat and watched it with me, though. Every week. Without fail.
I also vividly remember the antimacassars carefully placed over the back of the winged armchairs in the parlour. I can still see them now. My grandfather would go wild if a single, solitary slick of Brylcreem made its greasy way onto the upholstery. You can only imagine his reaction the one day when his youngest son vigorously shook a bottle of ketchup without realising the lid was sitting somewhere on the side. The contents spewed out and sprayed our gold flock wallpaper with that sickly sweet, sticky red sauce that we all know and love so much in Britain. I never really understood what all of the fuss was about in that particular instance: It’s not as if one of the Pyramids had fallen down. In retrospect, maybe it’s really not that complicated. My grandfather was an army man and everything had to be just so. I also wonder if this slightly obsessive behaviour emerged because he secretly understood the absence of love in his own relationship on behalf of his Lombardy bride. I will never really know, but I can still hear him mournfully soft-shuffle up the stairs in a pair of battered, paisley-patterned carpet slippers at 2200 on the dot, every night.
When I think of him, I still smile about antimacassars and ketchup.