Overheard – Stories from Unnamed Places No.03

‘I’ve made a note in my journal,’ the blonde woman said, as the tram rattled around the corner to follow the embankment above the river. ‘It’s a countdown. Four years and thirty-six days. And then I’m leaving.’

She spoke to her friend as if no-one else on the tram could understand what she was saying, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption. They were a long way from home, a long way from that small corner of her country where her language was spoken, and even there only by a minority of those living in the mountains and along the coast. She seemed to feel a safety in her mother tongue, confident in its impenetrability as she discussed the many and varied faults of a man she wished she had never married. Her fellow passengers did not flinch as she discussed her miserable sex life or the quiet despair of long evenings in a dreary living room, with only the television to break the silence. She could speak freely, confident that even if they heard her, they did not understand.

T. understood. His ears had picked up the sound of a familiar language over the rattle of the tram and the tinny, recorded announcements of the next stop. He was as surprised to hear the language of his grandmother as the blonde woman would have been to discover that there was another person on that tram who could also speak it, however imperfectly or inexpertly.

T.’s father had never learned. As a family, their language was that of the plains and the big cities. There seemed little point back then in teaching a young boy the words spoken by only a few thousand others. How could it possibly help? So his father had grown up speaking to T.’s grandmother in a language she herself had only learned in later life. Even when T.’s grandfather died, lost to a long illness that seemed to accelerate and thus was not long enough, mother and son continued to speak in her adopted tongue. By then there was no-one left in the family capable of reading the books she read, or her diary, which she continued to write in the language of her childhood, the language of her thoughts and dreams.

Why had T. decided to learn his grandmother’s language? The diary was part of it. She had left it to him, delivered via her lawyer in a large packing box. Sixty-seven volumes in all, covering nearly seven decades, from her late teens to her final month. There was something else too, some romantic notion he developed as he headed off to university, as he left the mountains for the big city, that there was a part of his past that he could not reach, that he would be unable to reach, until he learned to speak and read the language of his grandmother. On this, he would be disappointed. There was no great spiritual awakening to be had once he understood the language of his grandmother and his great-grandparents. He felt no extra sense of belonging or ownership on that first journey back to the mountains, now that he could speak to some of his old neighbours in their old tongue. For their part, they found it amusing, although they professed to be pleased that he had, unlike many of the younger generation, made an effort.

There may have been no great awakening, but he could read now read his grandmother’s diary. And he knew that if he could go back in time to speak with her, he would have been better able to know her as she expressed those thoughts and dreams in words that instead she had transcribed onto the page in her neat handwriting. There was something else, too. He noticed that his own thoughts and ways of expressing himself changed, now that there was a second language in his head. The new one influenced the old one in all kinds of ways. There were some words, expressing feelings or ways of understanding the world, that existed in his grandmother’s language but which were unsatisfactorily translated into his own mother tongue. He loaned one language words and idioms from the other, if only in his thoughts, and he felt subtle shifts in sentence structure, as one language made gentle suggestions to the other.

He moved on from his grandmother’s diary to her small library of books. Works of poetry and fiction, natural history and geography. He saw how his grandmother’s language had given names and places to mountains and streams, valleys and waterfalls. He had always thought the names had sounded so lyrical, but now he realised how prosaic they were. The Rocky Cliff. The Red Mountain. The High Falls. The Valley above the Woods.

And now, a long way from home, he could understand the women on the tram.

It struck T. as almost absurd, that he could follow their conversation in all of its intimate, melancholy detail, and yet he could not even read, let alone understand, the signs and the advertising hoardings that the tram passed as it moved along the river. The women did not know it, but they shared something, just as he now shared something with his grandmother, even if she too would be aware of it.

What he had realised, once the language had begun to stick and he began to be able to read his grandmother’s diaries, was that what he shared with her, and now with these women on the tram, had nothing to do with heritage or birth. There was no deeper connection to the mountains, the valleys and the cliffs through lineage or blood. What they shared now was a language, and all that flowed from it. Music, culture, poetry and the uninspired names of summits and ridges. And as far as he understood it, you were not born with language. It was not passed down along the bloodline. It was taught. It was learned. And thus, it was open to anyone.

As the tram reached his stop he caught the blonde woman’s eye as he waited for the door to open. He smiled and she hesitated, pausing in her conversation for just a second. Calculating the odds. It was unlikely, he could almost see her think. A tiny shake of her head as her gaze returned to her friend sitting opposite. ‘He does have nice eyes,’ she said, her voice weary now. ‘That much hasn’t changed.’

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

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