Anyone who’s lived, worked, or spent more than five minutes with me will know that I have a bit of a thing about noise. A sound intolerance that covers everything from people clicking pens to biting their nails (I once cured a colleague of that habit by shouting “NAILS!” every time her hand fluttered near her mouth. I’m a terrible person, I know), from eating loudly to having leaky headphones. I blame my mother. Any childhood sniff would be greeted with her asking in a clenched sort of way “do you need a tissue?” and every cleared throat would be met with “could you go outside and do that?”.
I’m a muter of televisions, a volume-knob botherer of car stereos and a shusher of people talking too loudly (“you don’t need to shout, I’m a foot away from you” I explain to my dad at least once a month). Throw in 18 months of living in a paper-walled flat next to a nocturnal neighbour who’d crank out “Daydream Believer” at full whack when she got home from working in a casino at 3am, and you get an extreme audiophobe. Why can’t we all play the quiet game? Forever?
Almost five months of my husband being in hospital has proven to be a comeuppance for me. Intensive-care units and high-dependency wards are no places for quiet contemplation. There’s a constant soundtrack of the medical, the mechanical and the human. When Nick was first admitted, the whoosh of his ventilator and the beeps of his body monitors provided a bassline to the hours I spent by his bed. Every now and then, alarms would ring out and staff would come running. Their footsteps punctuated the gurgle and wretch of the tubes they used to allow patients to cough.
Theses sounds of life being sustained were joined by something more traditionally melodic one spring afternoon as I sat by an open window reading to Nick. A radio somewhere was playing “End of Century” by Blur (at just the right volume) and it floated through the warm air. It was a welcome interlude, making me think of the day I’d first heard it 20 years ago, a memory that I recounted Nick’s unmoving form. But for someone who can find cacophony where others would only hear a hubbub, ward life has been a bootcamp. In one afternoon, I heard the following symphony.
The man in the bed next to Nick honks rhythmically like an elephant seal. As he groans, Nick begins to writhe. If it wasn’t so awful a noise, it would be awfully funny. Hooooonk. The patient diagonally opposite, the one who I call the professor on account of his scholarly demeanor, jolts his legs and rattles the bed frame. A nurse walks over to Mr Honk and promises painkillers in a Clear, Understandable and Reasonable Voice if only he would just be quiet. Next comes the rattle of the medicine trolley and the clunk of its lock. A machine bleep bleep bleeps. Bleep bleeps. Bleep bleep bleeps. There’s a smattering of snoring. Honk. From the corridor comes a verse of “Let It Be” sung by a cleaner. Staff laugh. Patients converse. Families circle, talking about the cost of cappuccinos in the coffee bar. The mad ballad continues as a machine plays a refrain that sounds like the tune of Magic Roundabout. Honk.
Does it bother Nick? Or does it comfort him? Or, like me, does this soundscape do both? After all, life goes on and it’s seldom noiseless. The grave is silent but, thank god, the hospital ward is not.