TERRY PRONE: Shaken when the ringing in my ears prompts terror in my heart

When any phone goes off in my presence, I assume death, destruction, fire, and pestilence, writes Terry Prone

THE landline in the house rang the other day and I nearly had to go to A&E to get over it. The first thing was that I had no idea what it was, it’s so long since that phone said anything to anybody. The second problem was that it was like an assault. I had forgotten how raucously exigent is a telephone with a full frontal old-fashioned ringing noise.

I didn’t answer it, I was so shaken by its unexpected bellowing and then I spent the night wondering who it had been and if they were going to come after me.

The man in my life pointed out that the trembling meltdown was nothing new. It had, he said, always been thus. He further observed that most people do not assume the worst when the phone rings, but that as long as he’s known me, when any phone goes off in my presence, I come over all of a doo dah, pretty much as if briskly poked with the thing they kill cattle with. I assume death, destruction, fire, pestilence and an editor bellowing over a missed deadline.

Now, to be honest, I’ve never had an editor at any time yell at me over a missed deadline. A couple of times in the last few years, a duty editor on this paper has rung me to inquire, in tones of affable understanding, if my copy had been transmitted. Which is bad enough, although the really terrifying bit is when they more or less imply that if I’m too tired/demented/drunk/lazy to write anything this week, they’ll manage without me. You don’t ever want your newspaper to find out how well they would manage if you popped your clogs. Because they mightn’t wait for formal clog popping.

I had barely got over the phone going when the clothes drier suddenly began making a noise like a jet-plane landing backwards through a kilometre of barbed wire. I must, I thought, turn off the electricity at the mains. Slight problem with that good thought was that I haven’t a clue where the mains is. Or are. Or the stop cock either, if we have one. But to touch the machine I knew was dangerous because electricity was definitely flowing through it and you never know what it could do to you, so I hovered in terror until Himself instructed me to shut off that bloody noise. In the end, I showed bloundless courage and turned it off. I even opened it up.Nothing in it except half-dried clothes.

Three weeks later, I’m still hanging clothes on the bannister because — according to the man who came — my bearing is gone. I didn’t know I had a bearing, but the man looked me in the eye and said “Your bearing is gone” in a way that defied me to try to deny ownership of it. The only bearings I know are the ball bearings in roller skates, so I’m a bit at sea on this one, but he promised when he put in a new bearing the machine wouldn’t make such a terrifying noise.

The dual terrifying noise experience got me started asking colleagues and friends what their most terrifying noise was. “The sound of Donald Trump saying ‘I do solemnly swear... ’” offered one colleague with a raised eyebrow, adding that his real fear is a time-related fear of a ringing phone. “If a phone rings at 2am, it’s unexpected and bad news,” he said.

Not saying that my informal research has any statistical validity, but, given the number of people who instance the sound of a ringing phone as their most feared noise, it’s a miracle of sado-masochism that so many of us carry our torturer around with us.

The variety of the fears it induces is impressive. One friend said her feared phone noise was the second call. The second call? If she ignores an incoming call and the phone rings off, then immediately rings again, fear floods her every vein, because now she knows whatever is eating the caller is big and serious and urgent.

Another said that when ‘Unknown’ comes up, her heart shrivels with a sense of having been found out. She doesn’t answer, which is counter- productive, because she then can’t ring them back and is left trying to figure which of her worst enemies was looking for her. A third suffers from such anxiety that her sister texts her before every call, saying “Only me and nothing is wrong.”

The pal who gets worked up over her phone ringing twice reverted with another noise that terrifies her. This is a first world noise. This is a posh, upwardly mobile noise. It’s the sound of the Nespresso machine when it runs out of water. “Because the sound is really grinding. It’s bad for the machine to run out of water. And your coffee stops pouring and the pod gets wasted. You should check there’s enough water in it before you go to pour.”

Oddly, some of my respondents were more frightened of silence than of noise. A mother of three maintains that the worst thing in the world, when you have three toddlers, is total silence from any one of them.

A colleague confided that he has always been so discomfited by silence that he must have a radio, TV or music playing when he is working.

Another maintains that the sound that puts the heart crossways in him is when is full name is used by anybody, this consequent on his mother using his full name, with heavy emphasis and rising inflection on the middle syllable, when she was about to tear him limb from limb.

Even ostensibly benign noises carry bad memories. The sound of the Glenroe theme tune withers one friend. “Because it means bedtime on a Sunday night. School on Monday. Cold meat sandwiches wrapped in tin foil. That pre- Monday childhood dread...”

An obstetrician/gynaecologist trumped the rest, though, with a noise that comes with a health message attached. Her heart doubles its rate when her pager makes a particular noise. Her pager seems to speak two languages: Worry and Total Panic. The Total Panic tone means “Get into the delivery room right this minute, Defcon 5.” Meaning?

“Well, you know that obesity in pregnancy can cause gestational diabetes? The mother usually has no symptoms at all, but her pancreas goes haywire anyway and essentially shunts all her blood sugar into the baby. So the baby gets very big. Very big. You might think that would be good, but it’s the opposite. Too often, Defcon 5 means that we have a gestational diabetic mother, a really big baby, and the baby’s head has emerged but its shoulder is stuck and we have two minutes. At most.”

You could understand how that distinctive pager noise would be a lot more frightening than the sound of a busted bearing.

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