One Man in his Life

Last week I turned into an old man. Now, before you start going on about how young I look and kicking up a fuss about 23 and a quarter being the new 21 and a half, let me be very clear that this week I seem to have turned back again.

It was all very peculiar.

It started the day I lost my hearing. No – that’s an exaggeration. I didn’t lose it. I knew where it was. I just couldn’t lay my hands on it at the time. It would be more accurate to say that I’d left my hearing in my other trousers – where it was presumably listening to the jangle of pound coins. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have it on me.

All I could hear, from either auricular orifice, was an all-enveloping throbbing – presumably attributable to the circulation of blood through the earlobes. Something was clearly blocked. It may have had something to do with the cold I’d been sedulously nursing all through the summer months, then again it might not. I cannot say. I am no otorhinolaryngologist. Then again, I can barely say otorhinolaryngologist. All I can say with certainty is that it felt like I’d been chewing on cotton candy with my ears.

With the sort of tragic inevitability which would have made old King Oedipus say “I saw that coming!” and roll whatever was left of his eyes, that was the night I had tickets to the theatre. Not, as it happens, to see the aforementioned family-friendly Sophoclean saga, but rather to watch the RSC’s latest production of Julius Caesar.

‘Watch’ in this case being the operative word. With my ears less receptive than a much-mocked brand of mobile telephones, I was unlikely to be doing much hearing worthy the name of honour. And thanks to the coughing brought on by my cold – which, I was told with some force by an usher, was very much not as quiet as it seemed in my head – those around me were unlikely to be hearing much either.

Which is how I found myself sitting in row L of the Noel Coward theatre with a pack of Werther’s Originals in one hand and a hearing aid in the other. The latter to work around whatever unseen gunk was blocking up my sinuses, the former to prevent me coughing it up all over row K.

“This is great!” I shouted to my companions while unwrapping a mint. “I can hear everything.” I settled down more comfortably in my seat. A sudden blackness filled the auditorium. I looked around, confused. “Why have they turned the lights out?” I asked in a stage whisper like Brian Blessed laughing into a vuvuzela. My neighbour turned around and switched the hearing aid on for me. The play had started.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that theatres stock hearing aids. I have no wish to indulge in generalities, but the Noel Coward theatre most certainly does. For a simple deposit of pound coins (also, infuriatingly, left in my other trousers), you can be given the magical power to control the volume of other people’s speech. A remote control for live theatre, if you will, with the ability to amplify the action on stage. Except, by virtue of the strategic placing of the microphones, it also amplifies the coughing in the front row. Thus making a professional production by one of the foremost theatrical ensembles in the land sound like a scratchy VHS of a school nativity play.

But there is nothing like the sight of someone less fortunate than ourselves to remind us of how lucky we really are. When the great Julius Caesar, striding imperiously across the stage in Act I Scene ii, calls out to Anthony

Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,

my heart bled for him. Have this hearing aid, I nearly cried. Borrow it for as long as you need. I’ll come back for it on March 16th.

But by the time the thought had crossed my mind, Caesar had crossed the stage and duly vanishèd. When next I saw him on the way to the Capitol in Act II scene iii, he was otherwise engaged and it seemed rude to interrupt.

Not having had to do any rendering unto Caesar, I was able to make full use of the hearing aid for the remainder of the show. And while wearing it did on occasions make me feel like the oldest of old men, that was as nothing to the sensation experienced when it finally came off. The world slowly began to seep back in, and polystyrene packaging once more filled up my eustachian tubes. Suddenly deprived of the ability to raise the public decibels at will, I felt like something out of the climactic scene of Dorian Gray.

Aged beyond all recognition, I shuffled towards the cloakroom to return the headset. Once confronted with the attractive young attendant, I accused her of mumbling and loudly asked her to speak up. I refrained from telling her that things had been better in my day, but it was quite a struggle.

Gloomily resigned to a premature senility, I left the theatre and fumbled at the wrapper of another boiled sweet. I wedged it between two of my remaining molars and squeezed until I heard a satisfying crack, letting my tongue feel the jagged edges of the two fractured halves. I smiled resignedly, well aware that the smooth, buttery silkiness would never last the long walk home. Oh well. Such are the Werthers of young sorrows.

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