Surrounded by sound

Russell Wangersky
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There is the steady beat of a truck's backup warning alarm from the loading dock, a metronome "beep-beep-beep" as the big truck rolls slowly back. It wicks through the walls like they have gone soft to the touch, like they are hardly there at all.

The hard wheels of the pallet-jacks that roll past behind my wall, shaking the floor under my desk as they pass close by, the variety of cellphone songs that warble, trill and chirp - as if every phone owner feels the need to broadcast what they believe their personality to be by the simple choice of their ringtone.

At work, they make fun of me for my dislike of phones - they laugh when I come looking for the owner of the cellphone that's just announced itself for the tenth time. Around the office, the emails come in, announcing themselves like fat fruit falling off trees, one sharp drooping topple after another.

And maybe that's it - maybe I am particularly sensitive to repetitive sound, even though the older I get the harder time I have reasoning out spoken words, especially in a noisy crowd.

I think sometimes that sound is like water and that, more and more, we live in a time of flood.

It is flood, because it is so much faster than the tide; one moment, there's nothing, the next it's swirling coolly around your ankles or knees. Around your ears.

So much of it, and so distracting.

All around

The prison guards have a late-night party in their small building, shaking the walls as if the building might burst - until it does, and they spill out across the prison parking lot, shouting and egging each other on, taking cellphone pictures when one stands under a spotlight to urinate.

And more than just water, the sound seems like light then, like it pools under the arc of some great and otherwise invisible streetlight, like it is a jellyfish of solid noise with distinct and sharp-lined edges.

A weekday evening, and the flower service at the nearby downtown cemetery, its music amplified and yet carried uneven by the choppy wind, so that it ebbs and flows exactly the way waves should. These waves are not peaked with foam, but with the earnest and the off-key notes of singers who sing occasionally, certainly at occasions like these, but with great and deliberate purpose.

They are singing the hymns that you remember from school, the stalwart, frequent ones that hardly require the word-by-word reminder of the hymnal, and you find yourself reaching with your ears for the notes that the wind batters away.

A motorcycle blatters by the mourners, underlining its importance with the sustained and overriding dot-dot-dot-dot of its engine and pipes.

Other sounds like single, sharp tastes: sugar or lemon on your tongue.

Walk past one yellow house on a summer street, its door open, a man yelling inside in the dark, "Did you want me to lie?"

Near and far

Out on the barrens in Conception Bay North, walking the empty trail, when suddenly there are voices up very close: the words indistinct, but the edges of the sound whispery and fine, and it makes you look around until you focus on two people sitting astride an ATV almost a half a kilometre away. A trick of the wind again, delivering the far to the near almost effortlessly.

Hear a thousand songs, and know the ones that are familiar within a scant few notes, like your brain's filing system is particularly adept at the musical.

I know when my neighbours are coming home, because their alarm system beeps the same three tonal beats before they can reach it to shut it off.

True and false

Sometimes, it is even the sounds that aren't there at all. I wake up some nights, sit straight up, the sound of a slamming door crumbling away in my ears, when really, no door has been slammed. Sometimes, it's a voice or a sneeze.

I lie with my eyes open, trying to decipher whether it's real or imagined, a mug's game if there ever was one.

And then, the other noises filter in.

A cat, practising small braveries in the front hall, yowls at a piece of midnight string, and I know he will pick it up in his mouth and drown it thoroughly in his water dish.

A crow calls, in mid-flight, outside the window and then passing further and further away, and its "caw" stretches out exactly the distance that it has moved away, wings silent, the declination precise.

It's nearly light, and like the birds, the paving crews are stirring. And they also sing their own familiar and near-constant song.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at


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