Without prompting, one of the dinner guests tapped on his glass, asked for quiet and launched into a monologue. His chosen subject – the uniqueness of sounds. He talked about them in terms of their commercial value. He was, he declared, speaking as a marketing man. There was no way of checking his assertions, but apparently the ‘pop’ heard on flicking open the cap of a bottle of Badoit is quite different from the pop from a bottle of San Pellegrino. And the same holds for the sound made by the door of a Mercedes when it shuts – it has no peers. However, despite their unique nature, sounds cannot be patented so cannot provide their manufacturers with a secure business advantage. In the marketing world, he said, not being able to profit from a product’s unique feature is a misfortune. And that, we were told, is a fascinating dilemma. After this denouement, and looking a little glum, our orator then went silent. Indeed, he said little else for the rest of the evening.
In contrast to the essentially bland, even forgettable, noises referred to over dinner, just a week later I was faced with a noise, or the memory of a noise, that has haunted me for years. It was the heavy thud of a police cell door as it slammed shut with a loved one locked inside.
We had been invited to a reception at our local police station – the very building in which I had first heard the noise. The station had recently been sold as part of police ‘rationalisation’ and the new owners were showing the neighbours its plans for redevelopment. The designs were on display in a room stripped bare of its past and the architects were on hand to answer questions. The viewing didn’t take long and, as we left, I asked if I might see the police cells “for old times sake”. I said that I knew where they were. The man hosting the exhibition looked a little puzzled but couldn’t see why not.
As my wife left the building through the old front door, I made my way alone along a dank corridor to the back. And suddenly there they were. In my memory there was just one lock-up, but in front of me there was a row of five. All of them were identical – clinical, tiled, windowless and with just enough room for a steel toilet and sink at the back, and a white marble bed looking more like a butcher’s slab along one side.
Though it was many years ago now the episode returned as clear as ever. I had been phoned late one evening by the officer on duty. After clarifying who I was, determining that I was an ‘appropriate adult’, he asked if I would like to visit one of my teenage sons who would be staying with them overnight; alcohol had taken its toll. Within minutes I was standing at the front desk of the police station being invited to “Come this way.” In just a few strides I was outside a steel door, and after a quick look through its spy hole my accompanying constable turned the keys of two locks, slowly opened the door and and allowed me in. He followed close behind.
Seeing my son alone, cold, silent and frightened was just horrible, and not being able to hug him and take him home was too sad for words. Very soon it was time for me to leave. The horrible heavy thud of the door shutting as I left has stayed with me ever since. Being a parent, separated in this way and unable to help made me very sad.
There was one small blessing. When a police station is decommissioned it is standard practice to remove the cell doors, and certainly, on my brief recce after the reception, all the doors had gone. While the cells looked as foreboding as I remembered, I can’t imagine what I would have felt if the thud had still been there.