All houses or should I say, each house has a particular noise, a kind of signature that is like a finger print identifying and memorialising it. I remember our first night at the Moskva, a modern hotel, in the Soviet style in Moscow, in 1984. Remarkably, it groaned and spluttered at night more or less like flats in Paris. If you turned on the taps, the room shivered first and then spluttered before farting a gaseous mix of air and water into the basin. But the most memorable experience at the Moskva and at all the other hotels in the Soviet Union, at such faraway places as Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku and Leningrad were the phone calls, usually after midnight, often at 3 am. The phone would go, we would pick it up and then there would be utmost silence, not even heavy breathing. Initially we mistook the calls for ‘wrong numbers’ but eventually we worked out that we were being monitored in a not particularly covert manner. What could a young couple with a 2 year old be doing in the USSR apart from visiting? I suppose the child could be a decoy, a cover for spying.
Aside from the grunting and groaning of the hotel, the Moskva also had the most formidable Babushkas in Moscow. These women, square as a barrel, unsmiling and dour, dressed in sackcloth, sat at the end of every floor, knitting. They were veritable Madame Defarges. All that was missing was the guillotine and the basket of heads at their feet. We survived the scrutiny and proved to ourselves that having children ought not to stop us from travelling and exploring the world. When we arrived back at Heathrow, we discovered that practically everyone else but us had a purpose to their visit- some one were Christians delivering bibles, others were meeting up with Soviet dissidents, and some visiting relatives. No wonder the Soviets were obsessed with monitoring our every move.
My first trip to Paris was in 1981. You don’t want to know the indignities of applying for a visa to travel on a Nigerian passport to France. Nonetheless, there I was in Paris for a weekend. I had little money, stayed in an atelier, firstly visited the Rodin museum, then the Louvre, and the Pompidou Centre. Jazz in the evening and wandering about the street in between rushing from one venue to another. But, it was the noise, the eructations of the water pipes and the associated foul odour of the Parisian sewers that has since been for me the signature of Paris.
When I moved in with J in 1981, from my own small flat to her Victorian terraced house, it wasn’t so much the noise of the house itself that has stayed with me forty years on, but the noise of the milk float, regular as a Lagos sunrise, at 6 am over the cobbled street below our bedroom. Well, there are few if any milk floats left. The cost has outstripped the wish to support a dying trade. Almost everyone we know walks down to the High Street for theirs now or order their milk as part of a delivery of other groceries.
I stayed at a place in London the other day. At night there was a surprising noise, a humming that was also a vibration as if there was a fridge in the room. But there was none. What could it be, this noise that was neither in the room nor outside it? I stalked about, looking under tables, opening the bathroom door and standing with my ears glued to the wall above the cistern, next I was going to crawl under the bed to investigate whether a pump or an alien machine was installed to disrupt my peace. I might have understood if I was back in the Moskva but this was London! I never worked it out and was too shy, too embarrassed to ask the staff next morning what was the cause of this noise.
I am used to the noise in our own house, a Victorian house with all the peculiarities of ancient plumbing. You will understand that the floorboards creak at night, ghostly movements on the stairs, even the roof speaks begrudging us of any permanent peace. When the central heating comes on, in the winter at 6 am, in advance of waking up, the bedroom floor rattles and squeaks, sometimes it actually coughs, and I have heard it move and stretch like a giant rousing from deep sleep. It can be disconcerting. Well it is disconcerting to have no control over the noise your own home emits. But we live with it, like we live with the new noises that our bodies make, the creaking and grating of knee joints and the utterly appalling reminder of ageing and infirmity that the mere turn of the neck provokes.
I am writing this, sitting at Birmingham Central Library. The background noise is between a melange of hums and rattling machinery. How come I had never been aware of this until this moment? Another conundrum.
Photos by Jan Oyebode