Michael Harding: Learning late in life to listen to women
The iPhone changed everything. These women were different. Their narratives were emotional
The confessional intimacies of the women on their phones overwhelmed him. Photograph: iStock
Once upon a time there was a man whose life was changed by an iPhone. He was old and he felt like a dog who had barked and whose day was done. When he was a young man he had tried to show off, by standing on tables at parties, and bellowing as blunt as any young bull about his indestructibility. And when he was too old for that kind of carry-on, he began to declare that he knew everything. He often wrestled dinner guests into a headlock of silence and imbecility with his furious righteousness.
When people began avoiding him, he grew trees. He watched the sap rising in their slender shoots and dreamed of majestic oaks, leaning down in the wind and blessing him, and reassuring him that the universe was truly a solid masculine thing.
But he was uneasy in the universe. In the infinity of being, in the unknowable resonating and vibrating warp of time and space he was masculine and singular and he didn’t like it. The possibility of God had withered long ago, because his ideas of a divinity were all nauseating reflections of himself.
No wonder he felt sad. No wonder he felt isolated in marriage, uncomfortable in company and terrified of sitting alone under a tree. Not even psychotherapy could soften his stony heart.
So he walked in misery for years, until suddenly one day, in the town of Bray, he heard them as if for the first time: women.
They were everywhere all about him on Samsungs and Nokias. They were in the supermarket aisles, in shopping centres and on the promenade by the seashore. All talking to other women.
“Phone talk is a private matter,” he reflected. “But these women have no discretion at all, on the street, or on the train platform, or on the up-escalator.”
He noticed them especially on the promenade by the seashore, in the intensity of the wind, as they passed him with phones stuck in their ears, each one oblivious to the people around her. As if the wind gave them protection. As if the gusty air swallowed all their intimacies.
It was only possible to hear fragments of narrative as they passed, with their dogs on leashes, or in tracksuits with their hearts pumping and their faces bursting with red blood vessels. But even a tiny fragment of a sentence can say a lot about a person’s private life, and the confessional intimacies of the women walking in the wind overwhelmed him. Of course he had a phone of his own. It was necessary for business. But these women were different; their narratives were emotional. Almost confessional. And he was fascinated.
“I told him I would never do that for him again,” one woman declared as she passed. What, he wondered, would she never do again? And for whom?
“He’s always enjoyed it,” another woman said, laughing. “Tell him to buy it himself.” Buy what? he wondered.
And a mother with a boy child in a buggy was walking slowly and saying, “So I decided to drive him myself because he was up all night and you know what he’s like in traffic.”
Such intimacies, he thought. Such confessional gushes. He had never used his smartphone like this. He wasn’t a man of sweaty emotion. Whenever someone asked him how he was feeling he said “I’m fine”. That kept women at bay. He was always fine.
And though he was married he lived emotionally separate, in a moody bubble. He brooded and was often angry and confused in the digital world of young people. If his wife ever asked him, “Are you all right?” he would say, “I’m fine,” and glare at her like he might enjoy dismembering her and squashing her into the stove.
“Intimacy did not get men where we are today,” he once quipped without noticing any irony.
But there and then on the promenade in Bray a hundred smartphones overwhelmed him and he longed to hear more of them. So he resolved to go home and sit down and say nothing. He would not turn on the television or dig into CNN reports on his iPad ever again. Instead he would boil the kettle and ask her did she want a cup of tea. He would sit on the sofa, look her in the eye and listen. A cup of tea wasn’t much of a gesture. But perhaps it might be a way of beginning a new life. A life of listening to the women around him that he had for so long neglected.