Tim Dowling: we talk about how we’re all going deaf. At least I think we do … | Life and style

We are four middle-aged men having lunch in a crowded dining room in London – a rare get-together. The conversation has a single overarching theme: none of us can really follow it against the background hum.

“I can’t hear anything in here,” I say.

“No, I’m struggling,” says the friend closest to my better ear.

“What’s this?” says the friend across from me.

“We can’t hear!” I shout.

“No, me neither,” he says.

“Do we all need hearing aids?” I say.

“I actually have hearing aids,” says the friend across from me. “I’ve just never used them.”

“I got tested at work about two years ago,” says the friend closest to my bad ear. I think.

“Tested, did you say?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “And she said I was functionally deaf.”

“What’s he saying?” says the friend on my other side.

“He’s functionally deaf,” I say. “But how can that be?”

“That’s what I said!” says my functionally deaf friend. “I told her I never had any problem at work.”

“What are we on now?” says the friend across from me.

“And what did she say?” I say.

“She said: ‘That’s because you’re the boss. When you give an answer that makes no sense, everybody else just nods’.”

“Wow,” I say. I’ve never wanted to be the boss of anything or anyone until this moment.

The next day my wife and I are in the car on the way to a party. My wife is driving, a podcast about questionable behaviour at a giant brewing corporation is playing loudly over the car speakers and I am looking at my phone. My wife says something. I turn, mouth ever so slightly ajar.

“Wuuut,” my wife says.

“Is that you doing an unkind imitation of me?” I say.

“Sorry,” she says. “I just said: HOW WAS YOUR LUNCH.”

On the podcast, a former employee of the brewing corporation is recalling some questionable assignments.

“It was good,” I say. “We talked about how deaf we all are.”

“Sounds fun,” my wife says. “Did you tell them about your perforated eardrum?”

“Yeah, but compared with everyone else’s ear problems it barely qualified as a story,” I say. “Also, I’m not sure they heard me.”

“I had to source humanely killed squirrels,” says the podcast woman.

“Did you talk about anything else?” my wife says.

“Probably,” I say. “I can’t be certain.”

“Nobody’s humanely killing a squirrel,” says the podcast woman. “I was like: how the fuck am I supposed to find humanely killed squirrels?”

Turning back to my phone, I imagine being the CEO of a large brewing concern and having 100 dead squirrels dumped on my desk because I’d accidentally insisted on them after mishearing a question in a meeting. To maintain my authority I would have no option but to stand by my orders.

“Oh thank you,” I would say. “These dead squirrels are just what I wanted.”

“They were killed humanely,” my assistant would say sourly.

“I agree, a beer would be nice about now,” I’d say. “And we have loads – we’re a giant brewing corporation, after all!” My assistant, stony faced, would simply nod.

“Are you listening to me?” my wife says.

“Of course I am,” I say. “But just to recap …”


In the petrol station, the woman behind the till – and a Perspex screen – asks me something I cannot hear. Do I ask her to repeat herself or select from among the most likely questions: would I like anything else? A VAT receipt? A bag? One of the discounted items arrayed on the counter?

“No thank you,” I say. She seems puzzled, but it brings the transaction to a close anyway. I think: mission accomplished.

Back in the car, my wife says: “Did you come up with any solutions at your lunch? Hearing aids, perhaps?”

“We decided we all need to learn to project, like actors,” I say. “And so will everyone else.”

Half an hour later we arrive at the party. I put on a jacket from the back of the car and go in search of the loudest person I can find.

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