The sound of silence

Helen Rumbelow knew bliss when her sister introduced her to earplugs

All Earplug lovers remember their first time. I was taken aside by my older sister, and, like a virgin on the eve of her wedding, handed a tiny white plastic box and given discreet advice about its use. Like many people, I had been taught that sticking things in your ears was wrong, and that those who used plugs were neurotic or kinky or both. But I was desperate. I lived in a house with walls like a paper lantern, next to the room of a decreasingly close and snoring friend. For months, I had lain, wide awake, listening to the percolating mucus in his throat and waiting for the grunts and gurglings to begin.

A sleep-deprived mind makes masochists of us all: the more I loathed the noise, the more I listened, until I felt the walls were raspily inhaling and exhaling around me. A few hours later, I would be staggering around my room, hands to my ears, moaning and buckling like Captain Kirk exposed to an alien frequency. If sleep is meant to be rest, why did nature give us two howling wind tunnels to the mind which we can't close? But the night after my initiation, I reached for the little white box. Shining in the dimness like pearls in an oyster were the two just-hatched ear plugs. I kneaded them into shape as instructed. Just this act, like rolling a foam cigarette between finger and thumb, soothes.

Once the plugs were in, though, it was like I had walked through Piccadilly Circus and suddenly fallen into a deep well filled with water. From the noise and the fretfulness, I was submerged in liquid silence. There was hush, save the soft waves of my own breath, rising and falling, and the slowly quieting beat of my heart. Sometimes, shifting my head, the outer tip of the plug would scratch the pillow, making the sound of a boat's hull, shifting on the shoal with the tide.

My sister became my mentor. Plugs probably class as "intimate wear" and you must choose carefully. She introduced me to wax, the traditional choice for an earplug gourmand. In their pack they look like sticky, pink marzipan wrapped in cotton wool. In your ear they form the complete sound block of which neurotics dream.

Unfortunately, the foulness of one's nightmares seeps into the wax. So, three years into the relationship, I'm back with foam. My plugs are orange marshmallow bullets, loaded into my head's double barrels. The foam is sensuous and succumbs to the touch, gently breathing out moments later. In fits of nocturnal affection, I have had urges to pop my plugs in my mouth and chew. Of course, there are those mornings when I have absent mindedly reached work without unplugging, blissfully unable to hear friends scream that I have a problem with reality.

But I can't let go. I need them there at my bedside. My hand scrabbles for them in the restless dark like a drunk for the bottle. On travels, their little white box is my amulet, giving me control over foreign sounds. I have slept on roofs above nightclubs, yards from the mosque - and yes, in a whole dorm full of snorers - and felt lulled into a guaranteed calm.

A prophylactic against insomniac insanity and the outside world, they never fail. I couldn't ask a disruptive and noisy human to do more. Love, for me, is silence.

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