When my head is on her lap, it feels like I am in the most peaceful place in the world.
Last thing at night, I lie on the bed and rest my head on her outstretched thigh. Gently, but firmly, she twists my head, repositions it, until it’s exactly where it needs to be. Then I hear the slight squelch of the olive oil being drawn up into the pipette, and a tinkling, like the tiniest of bells, as she knocks it against the inside of the bottle’s neck.
“Stay still.” she says.
We’ve been doing this for over a week, yet still I need that instruction. In that respect it’s like so many instructions I receive even now, years after she first identified the need for them. Stop worrying. Keep the noise down, it’s time for sleep. Couldn’t you shut the cupboard door, just this once?
We do my worst ear first, the one so blocked I can’t really feel much. There’s a gentle drip, drip, drip as the drops go in and then: nothing. A pause, in silence – or, at least, in what’s silence to me. Most people wouldn’t consider the room silent; most people would register the low burble of the radio, or the humming of the extractor in the ensuite bathroom, but then most people don’t need their ears syringed. Next comes the muffled noise of cotton wool being popped into my ear, like someone softly stroking a microphone, then there’s nothing more. All I can make out is my tinnitus, and I think again about how cruel and misleading it is to refer to it as ringing in the ears. That conjures up church bells, suggests wind chimes, when in fact it’s a cold, cruel tuning fork, always there and pitched to go straight through you, impossible to ignore.
She taps my head.
“Turn over.” It’s like she’s talking through a thick blanket. I suppose technically she is.
I shuffle round through a hundred and eighty degrees, face the other way, towards the window. This is my favourite part, what happens next. Again the squelching noise of the dropper being filled – I can hear it more clearly this time, this being my better ear – again the miniature clang against the neck of the bottle. Then comes the drip, drip, drip, but this time it’s followed by a glug, glug, glug, and then a whoosh and then my ear is full and I’m somehow untethered from everything.
It’s as if I am cocooned inside my head, protected from everything outside, in a weightless, soundless world. I find it funny that people pay a fortune to go to spas and lie there motionless in a flotation tank when I get that feeling here, with my head in my wife’s lap, my ear full of olive oil from the kitchen, dispensed from a three pound bottle we bought in Boots. I don’t know exactly how much time passes before I hear that muffled scrunching and the cotton wool goes in, but I know that it could never be long enough.
As I lie there, lost amid my thoughts, locked in the centre of that comforting sphere, she strokes my hair. It brings me back from somewhere else, tethers me again. Such a little thing, such a small way to show care and yet so important. I stretch and strain that unconditional care most days, by worrying about things that will never happen, or asking about things that have not happened, or just by nagging and complaining, and yet there it is: still present, still magical, not exhausted. I think about the combination we are, my wife and I: a motherless man and a woman who will never be a mother herself, nurturing and being nurtured, playing these roles like clothes that nearly suit us but don’t quite fit. And yet, if I could, I think maybe I would stay there forever.
“Right, you’re all done,” she says, not without kindness, “Up you get.”
My appointment’s around six o’clock tonight and I’m almost sorry to have to go to it. It will be a very different experience from what I’ve just described: there will be no lap to lay my head on, no hands through my hair, no tenderness, just a cheery nurse, efficient and gloved, a “thank you very much” at the end and I’ll be on my way again, through the warren of little streets heading back to my flat, able to hear and able to notice. I noticed plenty though, you know, even when I couldn’t hear a thing. When I get home maybe I too can find ways to show that I care, that I’m appreciative, and that I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to have one good thing that tethers you to the world.
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