Noises off

Three real-life aural scenes exploring the impact of sound on what we see.

Scene 1: The 237 bus on the way back from Westfield-bloody-Westfield.

The speaker is younger than he sounds – a weary edge to his voice that his face doesn’t match. His skin is clear and smooth, his beard the right kind of straggly. He wears a plain black rasta hat that covers his dreads and ‘smart casual’ clothes – they’re smarter than what I’m wearing, at any rate. He is wearing a tan leather bomber jacket and smart jeans. An orange plastic bag dangles from his wrist with the word ‘Dazed’ printed on it in black. I try not to assume it’s a vinyl record. In truth, I have no idea, but it looks like it might be a shirt. He clumps up and down and then up the stairwell again. He groans at the number of the people on the bus and and peers over the top of people’s heads into the traffic outside. The overstuffed bus caterpillars forward in a roadwork-choreographed slow dance. He phones his friend – gender unclear – and proceeds to have a fifteen minute conversation that repeats on a loop:
‘Ya mon. Ima ona two tree sebben. The two tree sebben to Ounslow Eat. Issa totally serious mon. I never seen nuttin like it. The bus issa totally full of peepul. And the driver is doing crazy ting. It done gone right where it no spose to. T’traffic is something fierce mon.’

I try not to think of the Lilt advert, and remind myself that it’s ok to laugh at people sometimes, as long as it’s for the right reasons. Part of me wonders whether his performance is part of an elaborate wind-up.

He wanders around the same few phrases and I try to tune him out. And then he says:
‘Ya babe. I got a red one and a green one already. Leave the pink ones to the battyboys.’

Or at least that’s what I think I heard. I experience a familiar feeling of paranoia, as I debate the rights and wrongs of listening in to someone in public, and whether or not I’m judging him by what he wears, or the colour of his skin. But ultimately, I’m judging him by what he says. Or rather, repeats. When the person on the other end of the call says something, he sucks his teeth and clicks his tongue. Perhaps this is a reinforcement ritual – some kind of aural language mirroring. Involuntarily, I find myself mumbling something and making an ‘un huh’ noise of my own. Am I reminding myself of who I am? What my cultural noise is?

He shouts at the driver when someone makes a break for it – abandoning the top deck with little or no hope of making it to the exit before the bus should pull out. The rest of us ignore this display of civic-mindedness, and resume our attempts to ignore the inch by inch report of the progress of the bus we’re all on together. Eventually he repeats himself to a standstill, and he brings his call to a close. He scans the night traffic for clues as to the driver’s right or wrongness, but he doesn’t seem any more at ease.

A space opens up and he walks past me. He is wearing camel-coloured work boots – Timberlands, I think. They look nice. I’d like boots like those. For some reason, the cleanliness of his boots matters to me. My stop arrives and I inch down the stairs. As I reach the bottom of the stair well, three words ring out again… ‘two tree sebben…’

Scene 2: an afternoon screening of The Hurt Locker at Brentford Watermans, cashing in on its success at the Oscars. Although ‘cashing in’ is somewhat moot, as there are only five other people in the screening.

I am confused by a table full of cups and biscuits and coffee jugs as I enter the arts complex. It feels like a meeting. But I am not invited. I admire the dedication of the man on the box office who asks me to pick my seat from an empty cinema. He mishears me, and gives me the seat he wants to give me anyway. I feel vaguely unhappy I do not have a seat-selection system for situations like this. Perhaps he senses this.

Downstairs there is the familiar smell of curry and an appalling blend of bhangra house or something blaring over the PA. Three men, who look like refugees from the Irish bar down the road, drink tea and make themselves scarce when I arrive. Perhaps they ran out of free wifi. Perhaps they don’t like company.

I console myself with a bag of stale popcorn and some alcohol free lager, although it takes three attempts to make my words ‘salted popcorn please’ produce the desired result. I am early, and I eat most of the bag in the foyer. I try to make a joke with the usher as I say I’ll hold back the crowds as I gave him my ticket. He ignores me.

Unacknowledged, I feel rebellion stir within me, and I do not sit in my dedicated seat. I try not to compare the tiny size of the screen and comfortable hearing level with the behemoth that had presented itself as ‘Westfield Vue 7 Extreme Screen’ the other day. I muse that there are probably the same number of staff on duty. It’s just the two thousand other patrons and smell of hotdogs that’s missing.

They arrive after me and sit about four rows behind me. An old couple, I can’t make them out in the gloom, but one is male and the other female. I’d like to think that they’re on a date. Or making the most of publicly funded art venues while there still are some for them to enjoy. Little bit of politics. Well, it is The Hurt Locker. I can only hear her – his responses get lost in the carpet and the chairs and the ‘ta da da da dadadududas’ in front of me.

‘Oh. I thought some of those people having lunch would be coming in,’ she says, in a ‘my brain freezes if I do not speak’ kind of voice that describes the weather, the behaviour of cats, the state of the neighbours garden, the timeliness of buses and the occupancy rate of local civic amenities.


‘Well, there’s not a lot of us in, that’s all I’m saying. And you’d have thought with it winning those Oscars and everything…’

She has a London twang and my shoulders will tense up over the next two hours as various plot-related stage whispers bounce back and forth between them. There is particular confusion over the mis-identification of a boy (a booby trap sewn into the body of a dead young Iraqi – as grim as it sounds). They do not appear to understand that the mis-identification is part of the you know, ‘thing’.

Despite the annoyances, I’m glad they’re here. I hope to think I’ll still be going to the cinema, or whatever takes its place, in forty years time. And I hope I’m annoying young’uns. Or aliens. Or young aliens.

I do not see their shoes.

Scene 3: recycling lorry screeching down our road this morning.

I swear I hear the distant sounds of girls screaming at a pop concert. And then I hear the breaking of glass and slamming of bins and boxes on pavements. A mechanical, melodramatic sigh is followed by the guttural throb of a diesel engine rumbling forward a few yards, followed by more girls screaming.

It’s a recycling truck. Its brakes sound exactly like a pop concert. Or, more likely, I have rather odd hearing. I imagine a throng of screaming girls following the truck around and throwing knickers and other non-recyclable items at the workmen as they dig their way down suburbia, reliving endless dinner parties, Saturday morning paperfests and kid’s own choice cereal boxes. I absent-mindedly wonder what other irritating noises could be improved by similar mis-direction, until most everyday noises I can think of are replaced either by clown car klaxons and the gentle phut of a smoke machine. And then I remind myself that if the truck’s brakes were properly maintained there wouldnt’t be a noise at all – so this pop concert aural hallucination is in fact a sign of the decline of Western civilisation as we all know it. Which brings out the clown car klaxons again.

Clowns wear big shoes. I’ve not met a real clown since 1976. He scared the bejaysus out of me.

What did you hear today that spoke to you in some way?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *