The Sound Of…

In our new house I spend a fair bit of my time trying to work out what the noise grinding through my head is. Today’s is constant, no dipping and rising in volume or tone, which means it’s a machine driven by power rather than hand, and it is unmuffled, therefore is outside. So it can’t be the floor sander I’ve heard before, and anyway there’s no accompanying whining hum of the attached vacuum. Definitely not a drill, which would be repeated short bursts of a few seconds. The pitch is higher than a saw, not quite as ragged, more like a loud insistent dentist’s drill. Nope, not getting it; must be one I’ve not heard before. I give up and wander out onto the deck. The volume increases only slightly (so much for double glazing) but now I see a bloke feeding long lengths of wood through whatever it is. A few planks later I work it out: an electric planer.

The operator has his ears covered, and I wonder if I should consider buying a pair of large noise-cancelling earphones. They are certainly de rigeur on building sites. And given that I’ve managed to live next to such for what seems like years I should know. In the city the constant drone of traffic was interspersed with clanging, knocking and whining from the apartment block going up next door. In the suburbs it should be quieter, especially as the house we bought was one of the last to be built in the development (I feel for those who have lived here since the first ones were completed). But there are still orange-hi-vis-clad figures working on the old church, earthquake strengthening it, restoring any wood they can, replacing what they can’t, building a new entranceway. Impossible to do this in silence and the backdrop to any weekday is the sound of sanding, planing, sawing and whatever else it is they need to do to achieve their objective.

A yell, followed seconds later by a clang or thud, means someone has dropped a tool from high, the shout presumably to warn those below that something heavy is on its way down. One day, sustained and repeated clanging announced the removal of the scaffolding, a time I thought for celebration but, no, that merely meant they had finished the outside work and could now move to working indoors and creating different noises. I can always tell when it’s smoko or lunchtime, a brief and blissful interlude when I can hear the voices in my head without interruption. End of day is marked by the cease of machines and the brief roar of engines before peace descends on us once more.

On the positive side, at least they aren’t pile driving. A couple of years ago, the beginning of my adjacent-to-building-site life, we stayed in an apartment next to where they were building the new convention centre. For the first few days I had sore knees from hurling myself to the floor every time the ground shook before I worked out what was causing the shaking. I wondered if the big one would strike and I’d be buried under tons of rubble by the time I realised it actually was an earthquake.

I’m grateful there’s no huge machine drilling into concrete (and my head), which went on for a couple of weeks at our last place when new storm drains were dug somewhere nearby. The constant, and very loud, rat-a-tat-tat of the world’s largest hammer drill is enough to drive anyone crazy. I’m not a particularly violent person but after a few hours I did consider roaming the streets to find the source and chucking a piece of excavated concrete at the driver.

When we first moved here we didn’t need an alarm clock, the grunt of the loudest engine in the city waking us on the dot of 6.30. Surely a truck of some description, but no, merely a small four-wheel-drive with monster-truck tyres, Dirty Diesel emblazoned across the top of its windscreen. The pounding of loud bass announced the arrival of a black ute. A few minutes later we would hear the rattling of a chain (at which point I was uttering thanks for the engine noise that had already woken me or, half-asleep, I would have frozen in terror that Jacob Marley’s ghost was paying a visit) as the metal gates were released from their overnight restraint, along with the machines and tools that would provide the soundtrack to the day. Neil, working from home one day, muttered curses when a drill operated intermittently for half an hour or so. I’d been thinking how quiet it was, wondering if maybe the builders were taking a day off.

Construction noises are abrasive and intrusive, not like the background dull drone of a lawnmower or the buzz of a weed eater (which I always think a similar, albeit louder, tone to that made by a bee trapped in a rose – I’ve freed many by poking my finger in to move a petal aside so he can get out). But the noise will stop, both at the end of the day and, eventually (please!) for good, unlike the repetitive thump of a neighbour’s music through the walls. I’m thankful I no longer have to put up with that. And it’s been an education – at least I know now what an electric planer looks and sounds like, and that it’s nothing like a drop saw.

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