I only ever heard myself just once. I thought I would try it. Everyone around me was and, at that particular time, it made sense to say something. But what I heard from myself when I tried was less words and more the excruciating sounds of struggle, like the porcine scream of climax.
My mother came rushing, as she always did, in a fit of self-importance and desperation. She said things like: “What now? What’s wrong?”
There was always something with me that wasn’t right and this was a testament to that. Even when I should have been able to make a sound like any regular human being, it was wrong. I was wrong and that seemed to transcend my body because, when they finally divorced, we were all wrong. My family was not right and that was all my fault.
She clapped her hands. “Today’s the day!”
My mother was always particularly fond of making grand gestures about how hard I had made life and how she had the power to radically transform it.
She kissed my head in a way that was intimate and distant. She set a boundary with her lips to show me she was there whilst also unconsumed.
“We’re gonna get this stuff sorted.”
She busied herself around the kitchen, sweeping crumbs into her palm and making a display with the dishcloth over the surface as though it was a performance of circus silks. I could see the way her hands were light as though magic lay at their tips. She was proud of herself. But more than that, she was excited.
“Gosh, we haven’t had a parcel like this since...gosh, I just don’t know when. I used to have parcels all the time. You wouldn’t remember. This was before I’d even had you. There would be shoes and dresses. Gosh, I had a gift for making money stretch so far. I always had something to spend it on.” She laughed to herself, the whole while her back was turned from me. “I’ve not had anything like this for, well, seventeen years now. Wow, that’s long!”
She turned and leaned back on the counter. She wore a top that had not seen the wash for years, not because it was dirty but rather because it was reserved for special occasions. It’s sat low on her chest, rimming half of her breasts and revealing the paleness of her skin. We didn’t do holidays. Or, rather, I didn’t so neither did she. Stood there in this way, she became alien to me. Her face was not the deep crater of pain it normally was. No contortions that came with black sockets and bloodshot eyes. There was powder on her face. Some of her bones glowed orange-gold. Her nails, no longer chipped, had a smooth sheen to them. Her jeans fit better than I had ever known them. In fact, I barely believed that she owned a pair.
“I suppose,” she continued, lost in thought and daydream. “That is one good thing that’s come out of all...this. Oops!” And expressive hand leapt out in front of her and hit the tea cupboard. “I’ve not been so indulgent since I’ve had you. They say minimalism is in these days.”
There was something that wanted to escape me. The memory of the first sound of my voice felt like a surfacing scar and I felt bold with it.
Screw minimalism, I thought instead.
My mother sprang upright and for a moment I thought I might have managed to make a noise other than a squeal, but she had sensed an approaching shadow and the rap of knuckles that followed it.
“Oh hi there!” My mother leaned in the doorway, almost as though she was teasing the delivery man to dare enter our quasi-hospice abode.
“Here you go.”
She grabbed the parcel from his hand like the bloodstream grabs a line of snorted cocaine.
“Why thank you! Gosh, you want to know, I’ve been waiting for this for aaaaages. Seventeen years almost!”
Through the door crease, I saw the man nod. “Ah right.”
“Yeah, you just wouldn’t believe. Do you have kids yourself?”
“Well, when you do-”
“I won’t. I can’t.” The staccato of his voice was morose. It stunk of condemnation.
“Right, well anyway...I just wanted to say, you know what? Never mind. Never mind. You have a good day and...and thanks for this. Like I said, we’ve been waiting a while.”
She closed the door and kneeled until her face was inline with my in-turned knees. “That was nice wasn’t it? Nice man. Now…” She drew her long fingers across the address label and down the cellotaped sides of the parcel with languid elegance. “Let’s have a go with this.”
We were meant to wait.
That would have been the first thing I said to her. We were meant to. Sally-Ann Bridges had said to wait for her. That she’d be away until Monday, but that she’d be back to help us out. She was excited for us, she was excited for me. She was trying to make me see that this device would be more than a violation of my privacy.
It was called ‘Gayze’, which was said, predictably, in the way that mean schoolboys taunted the homosexuals. Gayze. It was meant to be funny. As though machine dependency was a joke. As though you could ridicule the existence of a person based on their inability to use their own vocal chords.
For short, Sally-Ann had called it ‘The EGTD’ and she had tried a ridiculous amount of pronunciation techniques to make it sounds like a word. But, ultimately, this method was too laborious. That’s how life becomes when you have a disability; chores multiple and people have to ‘cope’. You inflict lengthiness into those who surround you. Eye Gaze Technology Device became EGTD. Multiple Sclerosis became MS. Treatment, in the form of disease modification, became DMT. ‘I love you’ became ILY on the phone or a mime in real life. I made life a way it didn’t need to be and people seemed to find it necessary to make my life more convenient.
Gayze was going to make my life easier, by exerting so much of my brain energy that I would have a one in three chance of feeling excessively tired, get more headaches than normal and develop migraines. There was a high chance I would feel faint. It was more than likely that I would become irritable and my judgement would be impaired. Easy, like she said.
“Come on!” The tablet was in mum’s hands. She was shaking it with a mild violence that would have landed her a jail sentence if she was more persistent and the object had a conscience.
I rolled my head away from her, which due to the curvature of the neck rest on my wheelchair, had the adverse effect of swinging it back to meet her direct eyeline. She came closer to me.
You might wonder how many times I had heard that phrase in my life. I didn’t. It had been at least sixty this year alone and we were only in March. It was a universal phrase and so many times had I heard it that I might have been lead to think using it was bonding. It was a phrase for the shower, for the car and for the dinner table. It was a phrase I could predict simply by the way my mother sucked the air through her teeth and pursed her lips. It was a plea and, also, a subtle prayer. God was also called Lydia.
I wanted to make that noise again and perhaps she would worry for my safety. Perhaps she would throw the whole device away and I would be left to my own thoughts.
My mother smiled and shook her head. “I knew it.”
She got off her knees and slammed the door, leaving me in the basking glow of late afternoon sunshine coming through the window pane. She had been blocking it trying to get me using the device. Now, it was mine.
“Steve, I told you; she won’t.”
Those words meant crisis. After the divorce, there was a niggling sense that leaving my mother with a severely disabled child was a mistake. I wasn’t under any illusions that my dad’s life had got significantly better since he got shot of us but he found it almost impossible to fully leave, in the way that cold-hearted single fathers do. Though she hated his guts, his company was welcomed by my mother. And by company, what was inferred was that he was a ear who knew a situation better than any families with normal kids would.
He could talk a lot.
“Well, screw Sally-Ann!” Mum began shouting. “I shouldn’t have to raise my child with a carer. It’s embarrassing. It’s not normal!”
I knew he would agree. It wasn’t normal and he had no idea of the half of it. But, from where I was set - in perpetual chair-bound-ness - no one was really trying to make this normal either. Most of the time, my mother’s instagram feed was an inaccurate record of my inexistence and, when the guilt got too much, I would feature - both of us snuggling. Lying down was the only way I fitted in.
“I can’t bloody well try again...But you know what will happen! She’s so stubborn...I just want, I just want…”
She began to cry and slammed the phone. She wiped my lips with a cloth and buried her head into my lap. A few moments later, she surfaced with resolve.
“Right, let’s try this again.”
She picked up the screen and held it a few feet from my face then she turned it on herself.
“Look, it’s easy.”
She winked a few times and produced a jumble of sounds. She jumped as it parroted back to her. “Ymgh,” it said.
She laughed and I smiled. “What do you think that stands for?”
YMGH. Your Mum Gets High, I thought. Your My G Homie. You’re Mad Go Home.
Of course, mum didn’t hear. She sighed. “Two can play this game, if you don’t want to speak, me neither.”
She stood up, hesitated and sat one last time. She sat in front of me, held the tablet screen in extended arms, and selected two words.
I felt like being in one of those movies where robots use manipulation tactics to get things from you.
I didn’t do it.
This seemed funny. The silence wasn’t. Mum turned and placed the screen in my lap, breaking her vow. “Fine.”
I looked at the coloured logic of the screen. Everything was triggered from the previous. Sentences strung together through probability and an eventual understanding of the user. I blinked. I blinked five times. My mother, having walked as far as the furthest point in my peripheral vision, stopped.
“I. Know. What. You’re. Thinking.”
She ran round to me and grabbed my shoulders. Her eyes searched for something in mine.
“What did you say?”
I blinked to repeat. “I. Know. What. You’re. Thinking.”
A wetness came to her eyes. “Lydia! God!”
I blinked to repeat it one more time. She heard fully. “And what’s that?” she said.
I was silent.
“Come on, come on. Here, spell it out. Spell it.”
She came close to me holding the screen straight out. I closed my eyes. “Lydia, please. Tell me: what am I thinking?”
My eyes remained closed.
“Come on, it's a game. What am I thinking? Come on!” On the last syllable her voice went up a tone. “Lydia?”
I opened my eyes. Blink.
“You. Want. To. Know. What. I'm. Thinking.”
Her smile was so wide it became garish, with teeth spilling from her lip. “Yes. Yes that’s exactly right, darling. Tell me what it is. I want to know.”
She didn’t. She was lying. What she wanted was a daughter who would sit and help her with makeup. Whose hair she could braid and who would go for drinks with her at the Old Vincent. She wanted normal. She didn’t want my thoughts.
I blinked six times.
“I. Don't. Want. You. To. Know.”