Project Description

A dirty phone call from Marcel Marceau

By Julie Ellsmoor

In recent months John has been regularly phoning me up for a ‘chat’. I love the fact he is so excited about something that he needs to share it with me. However, this presents a bit of a problem; when he was 2 years old he had the frontal left lobe of his brain removed, the part which would be in charge of developing his speech. So, John had to find ways of making himself understood. This was, and still can be, a challenge for us all.

John has always been very eager to communicate and his dad and I are constantly in awe of his dogged determination to be understood. When he first started to talk after his operation he would sit or stand in front of us for several hours, I kid you not, repeating a word or phrase with an amazing display of patience hitherto unknown.

Meanwhile we worked ourselves into a frenzy shouting out random words as if we were contestants on a game show. When (and if) we finally guessed the right word or phrase John would jump up and down squealing with delight, clapping and slapping himself, his dad and finally me, on the head. Then it would be straight on to the next word. We, on the other hand, would be crying with stress and blaming each other for not guessing what the word was two hours ago.

These days, sometimes John tricks us by having one word for three entirely different things. For example, ‘debris’: this could mean ‘batteries’, ‘Debbie’ or ‘Sainsburys.’  However, he could also be saying, “Would Aunty Debbie please take me to big Sainsburys for some new batteries.”

He also imitates words, which rarely if ever sound like the word he wants to say and combines these words with gestures and bits and bobs of Makaton sign language. Sometimes he makes up his own signs. If all else fails he will play songs to us, stopping the song on the word or phrase he needs or will find pictures in books or magazines.

John has made us all very proud by the way he has fought to be heard over the years. So, what’s the big problem? It all works wonderfully well…. but alas not over the telephone. It’s like having a conversation with the famous mime artist Marcel Marceau but without being able to see him!

So, there I was one evening watching the telly when my phone rang. It was a mobile number I didn’t recognize. When I answered there was no one on the other end, just heavy breathing and the occasional grunt. I tried again: “Hello, hello, halloos.” No answer, just more heavy breathing and the occasional ‘ugh’. I realized straight away that it was a heavy breather.

“Is anybody there,” I said, sounding like Derek Acorah trying to summon up a spirit.

‘Ugh’ came the reply followed by even heavier breathing.

“I am going to put the phone down now, I’m trying to watch telly and you need to get some help, mate.”

I was just about to click the phone off when a voice yelled ‘S Boat!’.  There was no mistaking that voice. “John,” I squeaked, questions running riot through my mind. How did he know my number? Whose phone has he pinched? Where the hell is he?

“John? Is that you?  Say yes or no John.”

“Yeth,” replied my obedient boy.

“Have you phoned mummy?” 

“No,” replied my gorgeous boy.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, grinding of teeth (a John specialty) and deep breathing, it emerged that Steve had placed the call and handed the phone to John.

In the background I heard Steve yell, plaintively, “He wanted me to phone you so he could tell you about his day.”  There followed a gasp, which I assume was Steve being put into a headlock.

“Ooo Bidge,” said John.

“Are you saying you have been to Bridge Up John?” ‘Bridge Up’ is the road bridge which rises up to let the ships in and out of the Mersey and into the Locks in Birkenhead. One of John’s most favourite activities.

Then, according to Steve (shouting from the far distance), John began to wave his arms around.

“Elephants? Maybe he is saying elephants and is telling me he has been to the zoo?” I shrieked back, unhelpfully.

“Eh-e hant yes,” exclaimed Johnboy who was now fully engaged in the guessing game and could feel a visit to the zoo coming on.

“John,” I said sternly, “are you saying Elephants. Yes or No?”

“Yes, No,” replied John unhelpfully.

Time passed. Steve and I yelled ideas between us.

So, now we had the following in the mix: a bridge, a zoo and possibly an aeroplane. Even now I’m not entirely sure whether I had managed to understand what John wanted to tell me.  Between you and me, I think he had been to watch the bridge go up in Birkenhead before going to the airport on an elephant.

What a fantastic day out, no wonder he wanted to phone me up to tell me all about it!

I was just about to click the phone off when a voice yelled ‘S Boat!’.  There was no mistaking that voice. “John,” I squeaked, questions running riot through my mind. How did he know my number? Whose phone has he pinched? Where the hell is he?