7.30 am. Late summer. At the Level Crossing, East Farleigh Station. The Maidstone West to Charing Cross is approaching. I’m fifteen years old, sitting in Dad’s car. We wait for the stretched white gates to be pushed back across the tracks. I’m on my way to Gallants Farm to pick apples for a pound a crate. Dad’s inadvertently blocked someone’s drive.
‘What are you doing, how do you expect me to get my fucking car out? I’m going to be late for fucking work.’
Dad looks at me. Should I translate this? I don’t think so.
I point at the window and Dad winds it down. The man takes a breath before his next outburst. Dad looks at him, shrugs his shoulders and places his finger against his right ear.
‘Sorry, he’s Deaf’, I tell the man.
Defeated and lost for words, he retreats up his drive and the gates open. We don’t discuss it, but I think there’s a faint smile as we pass ‘The Victory’.
Dad was born at Coldrum Lodge, next to Coldrum Longbarrow, a Neolithic burial chamber. His older sister was Deaf too and also had Usher Syndrome; inevitably and progressively, the light dimmed at the end of her tunnel. My brother and I were taken on bike rides to the stones at Coldrum and, in my imagination, it became a hallowed portal, connecting us to them, the sleeping ancestors. My living ancestors, maternal and paternal grandparents, seemed to me to be completely disconnected, despite their shared experience of having Deaf children.
We differentiated them by name and geography: Grandma and Nanna, Grandad Folkestone and Grandad Langley. I wondered what they discussed on the rare occasions that they met. Nanna’s love of books, her rise from life in service with the Barclays of London to shorthand typist at the bank, encouraged by Mrs Barclay? Grandad Langley’s adventures in Canada, missing the Gold Rush, working in lumber and joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force? Shot through the jaw in Arras, lamenting he could never eat nuts at Christmas again? Grandma and Grandad Folkestone’s past lives were unknown to us. No adventures, no stories, no wisdom. We had some facts: Grandad Folkestone was an engineer, had served in the RAF during the Great War and didn’t have any scars, just a barometer in the hall that he’d made from aircraft parts, while Grandad Langley was hopping in and out of craters, scouting enemy lines. I wonder now if they ever discussed the choices they made for their Deaf children, how they could help them to learn about and navigate the world. And the question of sign language.
The two sets of grandparents differed in one very important respect: one side chose to learn sign language and the other did not. Maternal or paternal? Here are some clues. Olfactory memories of furniture polish and disinfectant, a forbidden parlour reserved for special objects and special occasions (one day they left it open and we fatally examined the gyroscopic carriage clock – they scolded mum, not us), unexplained rules about how to eat and when to speak (and remember to say ‘Blue Peter’ when asked ‘What’s your favourite television programme?’ – not ‘Match of the Day’ or, imagine it, ‘Steptoe and Son’). On the plus side, there was the funicular railway. That was Folkestone. Langley, on the other hand, smelled of orchards, tamped down soil in the tomato-filled greenhouse, suet pudding and steaming tureens of home-grown beans, runner and broad. French cricket, post-watershed games of Knockout Whist and Joker (the television had the worst reception in the world anyway) and the freedom to run amok with the Suffolk Punch and the weird L-shaped Hayter in the orchard. On the down side, Nanna and Grandad swore by Izal toilet paper.
Pouring another basket of apples into the crate at Gallants Farm, I say to myself: ‘Hearing: 0, Deaf: 1’. Much later, I learn how that crude dichotomy has been refined by Deaf scholars into the possibility of Hearing Loss and Deaf Gain.