Falling on Deaf Ears by Sarah J Davies

"So Mum, you told the doctors’ receptionist you won't be wanting a free penis today?" "A free tennis?" said Maude, face straining. 

"A free penis!" Carol retorted. 

"Now Love, you know very well that's not what I said!” Maude laughed. “Something tells me Shane’s been making mischief again." 

Carol liked to tease her mother. It felt good to see her laugh. 

"And there's me thinking you were phoning them about your ear, not your private parts!" "I DID phone them about my ear,” said Maude, with mock indignation. 

“I wrote it all down in the right order. Held the phone against an ear which was hissing like a 1950s school radiator, and got in the queue. You've no idea what it's like, feeling you're completely stuck in your own head. I had to get ready to swap the phone to the other ear, just in case I couldn't hear her at all." 

“I have every idea what it’s like, but I can sympathise,” said Carol. 

It was a family condition. “Narrow tubes, prone to blockages,” is what the doctor had diagnosed. It was worse for Maud at 77. 

A nurse once described the problem well. “It’s like having the whole sea stuck in your ear,” she had said sympathetically, her beautiful Irish lilt making it sound even more poetic. “I'm sorry you had to call when I was at work, Mum,” said Carol, hating her employer even more. There was no flexibility. Yet, starting early made no difference to getting the job done. Maude continued. "So I listened to that frenzied violin symphony, as much as I could with a deaf ear. You know, that one they've got on a loop?” 

“I know the one.” 

“Designed to ram classical music down the throats of the masses, whether they like it or not. Then finally she picked up. I started as politely as I could, getting straight to the point. I said, 'It’s Mrs Hodge here. I wonder if you can help me, please? I seem to have gone completely deaf in one ear. It started Saturday morning.’ But I could tell after the first sentence she'd switched off," said Maude. 

Carol already had that sinking feeling, like they were a family fighting to stay afloat in a hardened world. 

"How do you mean, Mum?" 

"She said something like, 'We don't do that here.’ So I started again and said 'Perhaps if I could just explain what has happened?' " 

"Good, you stood your ground," said Carol. 

"So I explained how the olive oil hadn't been working, about the trip to Tesco pharmacy, about the eardrops that worked but made things worse. Finally I got to the blocked ear." "So what did she say?" 

"I hadn't even uttered the word syringing, before she said, ‘We don't do that sort of thing here,’ in that affronted tone. Honestly, Carol, it was as if I'd asked her to paint my toe-nails for me, pink with stripes." 

Carol’s heart sank. She was already doing overtime. Shopping and bills was one thing, but medical expenses were quite another. 

"So I said, 'Well something's changed then, hasn't it? It's hard for me to manage with bottom of average hearing. Now I'm almost completely deaf on one side. So what CAN you do to help me then?'

So in her you're so awkward and I'm such a patient receptionist-voice, she said, 'I suggest you Google ear wax removal services, or micro-suction, Mrs Hodge.' So that’s really put the tin hat on things." 

"What, really? You've got to Google your own solution now?” said Carol. “They'll be cloning their doctors next . . ." 

"So I had to press her before she'd tell me who’d do it, which she imparted grudgingly. It's like she thought I was a half-wit who should already know.” 

"For crying out loud Mum, what are these people like?” 

So I asked her outright. "Is this a resource . . . " 

"Hold on a minute Mum. Shane, is that you in the kitchen?" 

"Yeah, stop waffling on Gran and get to the part about the sex change," said Shane. "She can't hear you, so get on and make your sandwich," said Carol. “And mind you, leave those smelly trainers outside. They practically walked out of here by themselves this morning, they were so ripe.” 

"Sorry, Mum,” continued Carol, trying not to lose the thread. “So she said it was a resource issue?" 

"Yes, and then she said, 'But it may interest you to know we'll be opening a new micro-suction clinic in October, though it will be a paying service, Mrs Hodge.’ ” "So Gran, she thought you might like to get excited about their money-making venture?” said Shane, poking his head around the door. “You oldies get far too much pension, anyway!” 

Maude’s face lit up with the appearance of her favourite comedian. "Yes, Love. Clearly I might want to stay deaf on one side for six months, just so I can try it out.” “So, go on Gran, tell her,” said Shane. 

“So, to cut a long story short I said, ‘There's something I need to point out. Had I called the surgery this morning with a spot of gender confusion, you would likely have offered me a doctor's appointment within the week. But you want to send me away to use Google. So under the new NHS, am I right in thinking I might be entitled to a free penis, but I'm not permitted to see a nurse when I’ve gone deaf?' ” 

Carol couldn’t help but laugh. Her mother was known as Manners Maude in the Bridge Club. She wouldn’t tolerate casual use of the F word and penis was most certainly not a regular part of her vocabulary. 

“Well,” said Maude, proudly. “You can well imagine, that stunned her into silence!" “So if there’s a knock on the door tonight Mum, it’ll be the police for Gran,” said Shane. “For attempting to incite transphobia, I should think.” 

Maud sent her apologies to Bridge Club. “I feel such a heel, when I can’t hear,” she said in a monotone voice. 

Carol was working late that night. She fell over the still smelly trainers as she came through the back door. 

“For crying out loud Shane,” she said to the kitchen wall. She wrote herself a note to put under the kettle, “wash trainers.” They were going in, whether he liked it or not. He could attend his Media Studies lecture in wellies for all she cared. The stench was appalling. Behind the lounge door Maude and Shane were engrossed. They watched their usual Sunday night drama together whilst Shane sipped a ‘hair of the dog’ beer. The subtitles were up for Maude, who was now struggling with the words. 

“Blast that surgery,” said Carol. She’d budgeted for twelve pounds a week. It’d be a month before she could pay for that micro-suction appointment.

The following Sunday, Carol arrived home and noticed the absence of muffled television sounds. There were two sharp knocks on the lounge table. She poked her head around the door, in alarm. Maude put down her flush of cards with a triumphant grin. “All spades, I win.” Shane had instigated Knock again, to cheer her up. “We left something on the kitchen table for you,” said Shane. “Thought you might want to see what us lazy Media Studies students do with our working day.” 

Maude gave him a conspiratorial wink. 

Carol picked up the local paper. It had been carefully left open on page five. “I was Head of Content,” shouted Shane, “and Gran was Chief Spelling Editor.” The headline read, “Hearing, but only for those who can afford it (Words by Shane Hodge).” “A local woman and retired telephonist was refused treatment by Stonebank Surgery having lost 50% of her hearing. 

Mrs Hodge was sent away to Google her own solution, after being told, 'We don’t do that sort of thing here.' We ask, would Stonebank Surgery take the same attitude if this happened to their own receptionist?” 

Carol skipped to the conclusion. 

“The links between hearing loss, social isolation and dementia are well documented. A 2009 study showed that loneliness does the same damage to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Mrs Hodge will be forced to live with deafness until she can pay for treatment. We ask, is this privatisation by the back door?” 

“You naughty pair,” said Carol, kissing her mother, then Shane. “You make me very proud.” Carol checked the phone before bed. Maud couldn’t hear the ringtone any more. “It’s Dr Kim here, from Stonebank Surgery,” said the rather sheepish voicemail. “I'm wondering if Mrs Hodge might be interested in joining our patient liaison group?” Carol snorted, and pressed save. She’d speak to her mother about that in the morning.

Published in Issue #14

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