by Jim Mainland, with images by Peter Long
The voices arrived every morning.
In fact, I often seemed to wake to their jibber-jabber. They weren’t the voices of anyone I knew, despite the intimacy they assumed. They weren’t people who would normally have anything to do with the likes of me.
The way I heard it, there were about four or five of them, in rotation. There was one male voice which harrumphed the whole way through. Harrumphed. I can’t think of any other way to put it. He was very self-important. They all were in their different ways, but him especially. He liked inviting other voices into the discussion and then interrupting them. Sometimes they didn’t get a chance to say much. Occasionally, though, there were people that he did seem to approve of because he would let them talk to their heart’s content and even chuckle along with them.
Pretty soon his voice became intolerable to me.
Then there was a posh-sounding woman’s voice. Well, there were two, actually, but one wasn’t quite so posh. They both sounded very similar, though, and sometimes I had difficulty deciding which one of them was talking at me. There was also a man who was quite posh. This voice spoke in blandishments. The other voice – also belonging to a man – was very chirpy and bumptious. He was very confident in what he spouted every time he opened his mouth. As if that made it alright.
These voices all sounded very knowledgeable about the world and well furnished with opinions. They were always well pleased with themselves. I got the impression they didn’t have to take things too seriously because whatever they had decided to talk about wasn’t likely to have much effect on them personally. It was all a bit of a laugh. If you got too serious about things, well, that was a bit off, really. However, there was one emotion they very much approved of, but it wasn’t available to everyone, just a select few. This was the emotion which was intrinsic in the act of one being ‘moved’ by something. There seemed to be an unspoken consensus as to what merited this accolade. If something was deemed to be ‘moving’ then it was highly acceptable and much sought-after, but not discernible by the multitude.
I soon got the impression that they presumed that I automatically shared their view of the world.
It was very difficult to ignore these voices. I could only train myself to nullify them. I noticed that if I listened closely, then what they were saying was utterly vacuous. They simply repeated the same things, in tired and unimaginative language, in worn-out tropes and with wearying platitudes. If they accidentally hit upon a concept that was new to them, they were flummoxed. So they made sure they never did. Anything that existed of outside their own narrow understanding of the world, as it had been handed down to them, was treated with mockery – a defence mechanism, I suspected, which was employed to cover their own bafflement. Frequently they changed topic after every few minutes, as if suffering from some kind of hyperactive affliction. No attempt was ever made to respond in any depth to anything. Perhaps they feared that I would no longer listen to them if they didn’t keep skipping from one superficiality to the next, or maybe the voices worried that if they dwelt too long on anything it might expose their ignorance.
Yet even when I managed to stop hearing them I kept hearing them in a way because at other times it was terribly easy to tune into the same kind of things being said again and again in slightly different but eerily similar voices.
And so it happened that I found myself pitying their brittle egos. Their forced smiles. Their ersatz bonhomie. Those awkward times when they tried to ‘get down with the kids’.
And I was suddenly suffused with despair, realising that I could never help these plaintive, disembodied voices, these hopeless, hapless burblings of a decaying class trapped in some endless theatre of the absurd of their own making.
Jim Mainland is a graduate of Aberdeen University and until his recent retirement was Principal Teacher of English at Brae High School, Shetland.