One sure way to avoid getting an earful

19 January 2018 - 12:11
Two German historians claim that painter Vincent van Gogh lost his ear in a fight with his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin.
Two German historians claim that painter Vincent van Gogh lost his ear in a fight with his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin.
Image: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

This is a story about the unexpected benefits of misfortune. No matter how dark the cloud, there’s always some beam of sunshine.

My friend’s brother gives money to homeless people. Not just money – he gives food, items of clothing, anything he happens to have with him that might make their day a little brighter. He says he has a debt to repay, and that you never know when you’ll lose a body part.

Some years ago, while out socialising in an establishment serving fiery and intoxicating liquors, my friend’s brother became involved in some manner of dispute with another gentleman involving a lady. History does not record the point of dispute, but I suspect it involved some confusion concerning the precise definition of “enthusiastic consent”. The disagreement began inside the establishment then continued outside, where the other gentleman bit off his ear.

This was not that gentleman’s first biting rodeo, and he had obviously used his previous experiences to perfect his technique: he did not bite off the lobe or a section of the ear, the way amateurs like Mike Tyson do. He noshed the whole thing, gave it a tentative half-chew, and spat it out whole. Since hearing this story I have experimented by trying to take my friends’ ears whole into my mouth, past the teeth, and I can tell you it’s no easy job, especially once they start struggling, after the initial surprise wears off. You can dislocate a jaw.

My friend’s brother was rushed to the nearest hospital, where a doctor said, “We can sew it back on! Who has the ear?” The victim and his pals looked at each other expectantly, then indignantly. They’d forgotten the ear. They were about to scoot back to the scene of the incisoring when a homeless gentleman wandered in. He fished about in his trouser pocket and produced something bloody yet shell-like. He’d witnessed the whole event, found the ear behind some bins and brought it through, thinking it might prove useful.

In all the kerfuffle no one properly thanked the homeless gentleman, who wandered back out into the night, a good Samaritan whose virtue had to be its own reward. Ever since, my friend’s brother has been trying to thank him, or those like him.

But as my friend’s brother was telling me this, I couldn’t help noticing a discrepancy: despite this tale of miraculous ear-delivery, he is indisputably one ear short. Would it be delicate to mention this? He must have shrewdly read my thoughts because he told me that the doctor did indeed attach the ear, but it didn’t take. “But that’s not the homeless guy’s fault,” said my friend’s brother. “He did everything he could.” I rather had the impression that he did not feel quite as warmly about his buddies, who first let some lunatic un-ear him, then left it behind on the sidewalk like the last soggy bit of a late-night boerie roll.

He did not bite off the lobe or a section of the ear, the way amateurs like Mike Tyson do. He noshed the whole thing, gave it a tentative half-chew, and spat it out whole.

He could have had a prosthetic ear fitted, but it was an expensive and painful procedure, and the building materials would have to be harvested from between his ribs, so my friend’s bother has opted for life with only one set of whorls. He says it’s not so bad, although sometimes sound from in front or behind slips past without being funneled in. “The auricle does lots of work you’re not aware of,” he says, which I have no reason to doubt.

His main hurdle, being one ear down, was self-consciousness around strangers. He flies a lot, and the intimacy of economy class leaves you no place to hide. His strategy was always to book a window seat on the starboard side so that his non-ear could be against the window, thus not alarming his neighbour. But then came the moment that transformed his life.

He was on a night flight to London, seated beside one of those people who like to tell you about their job and then share their thoughts about state capture. In between wishing the aircraft would fly into the side of a mountain, he reflected on the cruel irony that his only ear should be so remorselessly bent. And then it occurred to him. Under the pretext of frequent bathroom visits, he suggested to his neighbour that they swop seats. She agreed, and when he sat again she turned to continue her monologue. He remembers like the dawning of a new day that perfect moment when she found herself staring into his unpinnaed ear cavity, her mouth frozen in mid-jabber. Slowly, a rusty drawbridge winding back up, her mouth closed and she turned to face forward and peace descended on his world.

A change came over him after that. He isn’t self-conscious any more. He still wishes he could find that homeless man.

 

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