Ears Now – by Alice Haworth-Booth
Winner of the Aurora Prize for Writing 2019 – Short Fiction
Dora glanced over as I was typing ‘cliché’ into Google to find an e-acute.
‘I usually type passé,’ she said.
‘Sometimes I type soufflé,’ I replied, ‘if I’m feeling sentimental.’
Dora and I had both been typists for Mr Léonard for three months, which was long enough to feel like it had been our only job for 30 years. Dora had started two days before me, and continued to start two days before me: it was a job share, with her working the start of the week and me the end. Our crossover day, Wednesday, was when we passed over vital information about Mr Léonard. Because of this, Dora had a head start on all her intimacies and theories about him, like a first wife. It was Dora who told me to call him Monsieur to his face, but always to type Mr on his letters. I couldn’t tell if this was an obsequiousness of her own invention or a stipulation of his, but I adhered to it with gusto.
I had worked in offices before but I was still young and partially eager. I was excited to have colleagues, though part of the excitement was thinking and talking of them as a solid lump – ‘my colleagues’ – just faces and hands attached by work clothes. As a group, they were an acquisition of mine. It hadn’t occurred to me not to avoid them at lunch or in the lifts at home-time. I always rushed or lingered intuitively. As our shared Wednesdays accumulated, Dora came as a gradually dawning shock. ‘My colleague,’ I called her when I got home, but I meant to convey something particular and surprising.
The hospital was a dull oatmeal colour all over. The only variation was the sheen of its surfaces. The floors of the corridors were very shiny. In the toilets the paint was high gloss; in the office it was chalky and dusty. You passed through people in waiting rooms, then there were long stretches of nothing. It was easy to forget that patients existed in real life. I trained myself to type their names and not imagine the insides or outsides of their bodies. I also did an edit on our office, trying not to see the hard nylon carpet and instead looking out of the window, and when Wednesday came, at Dora.
‘Before his clinic on Monday he came in eating an apple,’ she said, pulling her office chair next to mine. ‘It gave him a strange masculine quality. He had—’ she paused and squinted at the ceiling, ‘—a firm bite. He had that look people sometimes do when they’re eating apples, as if he might say something interesting and philosophical.’ She looked at her fingernails, which were shiny and short. ‘I know what he’s up to.’
She didn’t say what it was, and I wasn’t sure, but I raised my eyebrow anyway. Although to me our differences were clear, I sometimes wondered if Mr Léonard realised Dora and I were separate people. I knew he was aware of some theoretical differences, as he almost always called Dora Dora and me Anna. But he treated us as one continual being, resuming his saga without pause from Monday to Friday, pouring his story into a single unchanging, ever-listening ear. Around this ear our forms may have shifted, but the ear itself was trusted to contain forever all that flowed into it. ‘As I was saying,’ he would often say as he walked into the room, whoever was in it.
By the time Wednesday rolled around there wasn’t much I could tell Dora from the previous week that hadn’t been far exceeded by what had happened to her on Monday and Tuesday, but I had my moments. For example, last Thursday Mr Léonard had absent-mindedly rested his hand on my shoulder while standing behind me, making adjustments to a letter I’d typed.
‘There should be an exclamation mark after “cartilage”,’ he complained. ‘And italicise “best”. With my very best wishes and kindest regards.’ When he was satisfied with the letter, his awareness came to his hand which had started to rub my shoulder quite hard and quite specifically, the way you would rub your own neck if it ached. He hesitated then gave a final squeeze, as if to say the massage had been intentional, then patted me on the back hard like a rugby player. He left the room singing ‘Cartilage! Cartilage!’
I had been dying to tell Dora about Cartilage! but it was over disappointingly quickly. After my re-enactment, she drew her chair closer and said that on Monday afternoon, after surgery, he had returned to the office full of beans, telling her about the subtlety of his incisions.
‘When he gave me the tape,’ continued Dora, ‘he said gird your loins, and gave me a little wink and a nod.’
‘What was on the tape?’
‘Nothing unusual!’ Dora hissed in a delighted whisper. ‘Thank you once again for referring this charming and very pleasant young lady. T2 M1. Very successful. Exclamation marks.’
I was on the lookout, but could detect neither sexuality nor an unusual lust for power in his misdemeanours. He was provocative but strange. If he was aiming for a target I couldn’t tell what it was, or how near to it he ever intended to get.
Over the next few days Dora and I texted each other gird your loins: on our work phones, before relaying mundane information about our lunch or the lifts. Dora usually dissuaded me strongly from texting her about work while she was not working, but gird your loins: came thick and fast, so I could hardly keep up with her as I walked around the hospital looking for things for her to gird them against. My texts were not very funny but sending them still gave me a sense of whirling exhilaration, and Dora seemed to love them. Sometimes I wondered if she thought ‘gird your loins’ was more salacious than it was, and sometimes I thought it was me who didn’t get the joke.
Typing was my favourite part of the job. It was supposed to be the only part of it, but the administration around listening to his voice was so onerous that putting on my headphones and pressing my foot on the pedal assumed the stature of a great treat, for which I made myself comfortable. I imagined Mr Léonard as a desperate, brilliant Scheherazade, telling me stories in order to live. ‘February 8th,’ he said at the beginning of the tape, then with a flourish: ‘A Thursday.’ I turned his voice on and off like a tap, the better to enjoy its cool clear sparkle. The first patient was richly drawn and I knew she would be the highlight of the clinic. ‘Mrs Sandi was, however, very emotional and tearful,’ the tape said, ‘and I have decided to make a great exception and burden the health service with her treatment.’ I decided to italicise both very and great.
I copied and pasted the sentence into the separate Word document Dora and I kept for such occasions. I thought of the Word document as incendiary so had named it ‘Grammar to check’ and replaced all names with initials and any confidentiality-breaching specifics with dashes, like in a 19th century novel. Dora was less pedantic than I was and often kept patients’ whole names in for their poetic qualities – Raymond Moon; Susan New; Manuel Button. Whenever I opened it and found a new line she had pasted in, I felt the sharp thrill of collaboration. We were artists.
On Friday morning Mr Léonard flicked through the magazines that had arrived: Ears Now and Throat Quarterly. There was no Nose News. He leaned over my desk, pointing at photographs of surgeons who had been distinguished by various professional bodies. ‘Adulterer,’ he smirked. ‘Terrible gambling addiction,’ he pointed to another.
When I smiled but didn’t reply he put his forefinger to the medical records next to my computer, waiting for their letter. ‘As you know, Dora–’ at this he tilted his head as if to really see me, then corrected himself: ‘–Anna, I was so worried about this unfortunate lady’s face. Impossible obstruction. Dreadful prognosis. But the job I’ve done is really rather good.’
I often didn’t know what to say in reply and most of the time indulged him with a quiet good-natured snort, not able to bring myself to openly congratulate or censure him.
On Monday, Dora texted me a preliminary gird your loins: and I waited for the succeeding banality to arrive for minutes, then hours. Perhaps this was a ground-breaking elaboration of the form: what was more boring than nothing itself? What was more compelling? I let her joke gather force, and didn’t send any question marks to ruin its momentum.
On Wednesday Dora failed to arrive. She was the type who would by her nature take many days off sick but never did because of the timesheet tyranny of the Senior Secretaries. We both squeezed our illnesses into our days off, along with our ‘freelance pursuits’ and ‘creative projects.’
Mr Léonard came in eating an apple. He had cycled to work for the first time ever – his face was glistening and a virtuous sweat fizzed off his arms and legs. In his helmet, still on with the straps hanging loose, he looked stupid, but sweet. I panicked for Dora, without whom I was worried this vision could take no form and would dissolve before my eyes.
‘Dora – Anna,’ he addressed only me, ‘Don’t I look good!’ He twirled. ‘I’m fighting the flab. Slimming down. What do they call it up there – downsizing… restructuring,’ he gave me the wink and nod, and knocked his fist against a stomach which was already firm.
Dora didn’t arrive during Mr Léonard’s clinic. I had summoned the courage to send her a semi-earnest text but there had been no reply.
When Mr Léonard came back with his white coat on and his Dictaphone in his hand, I just asked, as I stood whipping letters through the franking machine: ‘Do you know if Dora is coming in today?’
‘Dora…’ he said. ‘That’s you?’
‘You know they used to believe the nose was connected to the genitals,’ he lunged in just before lunch. ‘They cut off hysterics’ noses and nearly killed them. You know, to sever the link.’ He scissored his fingers in front of my nostrils. ‘Of course noses are connected to the genitals. We are systems are we not. Pheromones and so on.’ He tapped his own nose and bulged his eyes outrageously.
At the clinic he had seen a patient with Empty Nose Syndrome. ‘A controversial diagnosis with psychological overtures, but, as they say, if the glove fits…’ he proclaimed on the tape. I copied the line but it turned out there was nowhere to paste it. Our Word document was gone.
Mr Léonard called me both Dora and Anna until the day I left, but without Dora there I wasn’t sure if I was even one person. I listened to the clinic tapes with a dull sense that they contained something shimmering beyond my interest. If Mr Léonard leaned close to me and admired the smallness of my ears, I had no use for it. I became interested in refilling the staplers and stacking the office paper in efficient honeycomb structures. I absent-mindedly alphabetised the backlog of patients’ notes, suspending all sense of urgency.
Mr Léonard floated out of my zone of vision, gliding away into the hospital corridors in his white coat like a skier into a snowy landscape. He resurfaced inaudibly to leave his tapes on my desk. I typed them up but didn’t hear them: all the action was in my fingers now which skipped out ninety graceful words per minute. I came to the attention of the Senior Secretaries and was honoured with begrudging praise. After three empty full time weeks, I quit.