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I never met anyone who could stand their voice on tape. I’m not being harsh, but if you like a thing like that – if you stay up late, listening to yourself – you’ve got to be some sort of terminal loner. Doctor Clayton pressed play on the Dictaphone, and we both sat in the hotel, and we listened. All the important things I’d said were gone. It was like someone’s bad impression of me – like I was making fun of myself. She watched me take the Dictaphone and throw it on the floor. I saw the screen with the soundwaves, and I stamped on it.
Out of all the locals and the second-homers in our village, only my family spoke the old language. People would stop me in the street and say, hey, kid, how do you say this? How do you say that? And I’d never let them down. Everything was miserable when I was speaking English. It was this everyday thing – like, I dunno, seeing a rat. But when I was speaking my language the street had a new name, and there was light and colour and I was – it feels weird to say in English – happy. I was so happy I could’ve hugged strangers. I used to help my father in the kitchen, and he’d teach me the words for dinner. He’d tell me, if you don’t know the names, how can you eat? And mum, she’d be in front of the TV, and we’d make fun of the people on the screen in a way they’d never understand. Happiness like that is work. By the time it was dark, I was so exhausted that I slept maybe 10 hours. But whenever I woke up in that language, I knew I could go again.
I was 19 when – I’m just going to say it – my parents. Them out for a drive, someone else drunk at the wheel. Doctors said that no one felt a thing: In my language we don’t say white lie, we say tiny lie. But it didn’t seem tiny to me, and for a long time I felt like I was sitting beside the lie, like I was dragging it around. It was like one of those oxygen tanks you see sick people use. I sat around the empty house and breathed it in, breathed it out. I put my arm around it when I watched TV. I could feel the metal of the tank, and I clamped the mask over my mouth. I told myself: should’ve been me, should’ve been me, should’ve been me. And I’m not stupid. I know pure oxygen is poison.
Since my village is the only place for a language like that, I was unique. But I didn’t want to talk with anyone, and if they stopped me in the street, I’d tell them something that they knew was swearing, even if they didn’t know the words. It stayed like that until I got that email: linguist studying endangered languages. I laughed because, like, really, people will study anything these days. But when someone offers money for what you’re good at, you don’t say no, do you?
I’d never seen a linguist and I guess I was expecting some old guy. Maybe a bit like the man who plays organ at our church – white hair, indoors only. So when I saw this Doctor Clayton at the hotel, I was like – oh. She was so smart that she could, you know, do fractions with her eyes closed – I mean she was smart. And she was, like, what, 28? We have a word in my language for someone who acts older than they are, and I can’t say it to you, but that was her. She’d already put two chairs in the corner of the lobby, and there was a coffee table between them with her Dictaphone on top. On the screen there were these waves that jumped whenever I talked. If you want to be a doctor of linguistics you’d better be good at chat, but I couldn’t believe that she said good morning in the same words as my parents.
Maybe if you only speak English, you don’t know how weird it is to see someone switch language. People’s whole face, their personality – they change like they were never really there. And I’d never heard anyone speak my language except my mum and dad. I’d always thought – and I’m not being harsh – that the only good doctors worked in hospitals. But when I heard Doctor Clayton, I thought, this linguistics thing, it’s all right.
I tried to say something, but she held up a hand. “No, I’m sorry.” She was speaking English again. “That’s all I know. I can’t say anything, really. You’re the only speaker here.”
I could tell she was trying to be nice, but it still got me down. I asked, “Should we make a start or something? Cause like, I’ve got some business to finish.”
That wasn’t 100 percent gold-plated truth, but I did have a shift to book at work. Only she gave me this weird look, and for a second I worried she’d caught me out. Then I realised that I wasn’t speaking English, and I had to lie again, this time in a way she’d understand.
She was going to tape my language – then her and the other doctors would, I don’t know, probe it or something. She took out the Dictaphone and got me talking about my childhood. She was like a psychiatrist – that’s another doctor I don’t trust. But there was something in this Clayton – something good, you know? – that made me tell her everything from my dad in the kitchen to my mum watching TV. I told her about the trip mum took when I was19, and dad in the passenger seat, and the policewoman who knocked at my door, and all the words came out of me, and I spoke my language fluently for the first time in years. After a while I had to stop, and she brought a tissue and I blew my nose, and the wave on the screen of the Dictaphone jumped like I’d frightened it.
The doctor said, “I’m just going to listen through. Check that it recorded.”
Ask me, I have a nice voice. It’s not so deep that you lose it in the background and not so sharp that you can’t lose it anywhere. But as soon as the recording began, I heard my own mistakes. I hadn’t practiced in so long – no voice in the world was going to save me. I was stumbling, the genders of my words were wrong, my tenses were so bad that I couldn’t tell if I was talking in the future or the past. My stomach got a feeling like – what’s the proper word for that? Anyway, I folded up inside.
A language like mine doesn’t have a textbook. Either you learn it with your family or you don’t learn it at all. If you forget it – see you later, bye. And I thought of my parents – and Doctor Clayton, how I’d wasted her time – and I knew I’d lost the only thing that I was ever good at. The Dictaphone was still playing my voice. I watched the waves on the tiny screen. Under the coffee table, my foot started to twitch.