The English Speakers by Sarah Quigley


Sarah Quigley is a novelist and short-story writer. Born in New Zealand, she has a D.Phil. from Oxford University. She has published several novels, a collection of short stories, and a creative writing manual. She lives and works in Berlin.

Honorable Mention - 2011 Raymond Carver Contest

They are English speakers, he and she. They speak English very well: very well indeed. So good are they at English that they have developed their own small version of it: a sub-structure under a superstructure, a strut under a bridge. Their own version flashes quickly across a room like, oh, I don’t know, Morse code with torches (although they have never done this). Or like flashes of phosphorescence off the Californian coast—though they have never been there.

Sometimes other people might catch a small piece of their communications—the end of a quip, the flicked tail of a sentence. But usually it is only the noise after the words, and this is more puzzling than enlightening. For those onlookers and listeners-in, it is like lying in the gutter on a dark night, blind drunk, and hearing only the beginning or the end of a conversation. The footsteps are above their heads, already hurrying away to the proper person.

He and she. They are adept at speaking their language, although they know nothing—care nothing—for grammar. Because they understand it instinctively, they are able to throw it away. Let’s say they are like jazz musicians who have never learnt to read notes on a stave because they have never needed to. Or perhaps they are like firewalkers in Fiji, skimming just above the surface of convention.

He says: if I cut one of your fingers off, letters would rain forth

She says: and form sentences as they fell.

.  .  .

They are excellent speakers of English. Try to keep up with them and for a time you might manage, though you would exhaust yourself with the trying. But now the moment has come for them to pack their bags and relocate to a foreign city where nonetheless everyone speaks English. (What moves them? Life moves them, just as a tectonic plate grinds on unseen and then—suddenly—topples buildings into the street.)

Everyone speaks English there! other people cry. Which they recognize, he and she, for what it is: a reassurance or a hope, voiced by people who move only as far as their washing lines and back.

He and she. They pack up, first their living room and then their bags. His and hers. They throw questions across the room so the bare floor becomes littered with them. Only one thing is hard to decide on: a snow globe containing miniature mountains and a polar bear. Should they throw it away or give it away? Should they pack it or sell it?

The snow bear decides for itself, tumbling from the edge of a drop-leaf table. Or does the table fall away beneath it? It is hard to tell, in the midst of the packing storm. And so the issue of the snow globe is wrapped around with mystery; it is clouded forever and is unable to be cleared away by quick verbal brooming.

They drag their lives, he and she, on wheels. Down stairs and through stations, along gleaming miles of airports. Already they have forgotten the confusion of the snow globe, the glass and the water, and they laugh as they drag their lives behind them. (They laugh, they talk.)

When they arrive in the new city where everyone speaks English, it is fairly cold. They sleep that night with coats on the bed: something they have never done. And when they wake, it is Sunday and the shops are closed, so they must eat at a restaurant or go thirty-six hours without food (something they have never done). Yet they are not spoilt: they are simply fortunate, and they have each other.

They venture out onto streets that twist like ankles. The pavements are strewn with questions: no, with leaves. The pavements are strewn with leaves, and there is moisture in the air. Soon they find an Indian restaurant strung about with fairy lights and a blackboard sign outside. The sign says We have English Menu. So they go in.

She says: are you sure the sign said We have?

He says: or was it hate?

He must go back to check—of course he must—while she gets a table. Soon he returns and, sure enough, it washave out there on the board rather than hate. (Of course it was.) They are seated at the top of the stairs so that people bump past them when going to the bathroom, but the candles glow and drop heavy wax on their fingers. No, I mean on their coats.

They eat all kinds of good dishes: chickpeas and naan bread, and tandoori chicken that stains their fingers—yes, their fingers—like burns. They eat a lot so cannot speak so much.

Outside, the nightening street has a thin layer of ice. Underfoot, cobblestones that make for hard talking: no, for walking. They are suddenly tired so they go straight home, him and she, her and he.

She says: I love you.

.  .  .

Because they are English speakers, there are areas where it is not safe for them to go. But their house is warmed now, and it glitters with words. Sentences hang from the curtain rails like icicles and gather bird-like on the top of the fridge.

To post things is a problem, though. To buy stamps forces the verb to the end of the sentence. And the post office is in that area which, they have been told by someone who speaks English, is a no-go zone.

I once knew a girl, says that other English speaker haltingly, who spoke our language so badly it was charming.

They ask, he and she, what happened to the girl.

She tried so hard, says the other speaker, she was simply not attractive any longer.

They go home, go inside. But an odd thing. Their mouths have frozen up and can only be thawed by several cups of very hot tea. The tea burns their tongues and this is painful, but soon it is over and then they laugh. They sit in their chairs and how they laugh, at the tale of the unattractive girl and at the bad tea they have made, and how one of them has poured, forgetting to use a strainer so that the tea leaves float like cork in badly opened wine.

He says: like gulls on the sea!

She says: but that’s too obvious.

Then she frowns and goes to tip her tea down the sink, and she washes the cup without noticing which way the water curls in the plughole.

(He says: like faeces in a sewer?

But this is stupid and he frowns too, even though frown is an empty word implying nothing, for no one has ever defined exactly what a frown looks like on a person’s face.)

.  .  .

They buy various mistakes, he and she: paper towels instead of toilet paper, and toothpaste for people with dentures. (Him and her, they don’t have false teeth so special toothpaste is not needed.) What else? They buy golden syrup instead of honey, so their baking is too sweet and makes them sweat at night if they have eaten late.

When they go to the checkout, their mouths are muted. But everyone speaks English! The thing is, when they go to the counter of a shop, everyone is not there.

Her says: can I have

Him says: this I want

.  .  .

She sits in their warm kitchen and drinks coffee. Then she works efficiently all day. He cooks dinner, cracking eggs with fine finesse and throwing the shells over his shoulder like a TV chef. Here’s one I prepared earlier! he cries. He pulls a soufflé from the gas oven and carries it, still rising, to the table.

She is pleased: of course she is. Cheese soufflé is her favourite dish and then, because it is her birthday, phone calls arrive from all over the world. The connections are good, leaping up to touch the satellites, forming arcs of speech across the globe. And she is quick this night. Her words ricochet off the receiver, bounce off her shoulders, and land lightly on his face as he sits there listening.

Then the calls stop, because it is midnight for them in this city. And they dance, he and she, in the middle of their bare floorboards.

He says: are we destined always to have bare

and she says: boards?

In the bedroom, laughter and darkness lie side by side, waiting for them. So there are four of them: him, her, the laughing, and the dark. He and she say something at the same time so that their words pass right through each other and out the other side. Snow is falling, and after they have made love, they stick their heads out the window and put their soft tongues out.

.  .  .

They are English speakers, but even so they must go to that district—the district where it is important not to look too white, or too brown. (Which is it? They cannot remember, are not sure.)

There are doors, and several false starts. They take a number that does not come. How long should they wait before realizing the number will not come?

There is a woman who asks them something. Her eyes are very thick. Her lashes are clogged, she asks something.

He says: once was I

Then there is some silence in the room, except for the lights humming in a bad way, making sick shadows appear on their faces. He clears his throat but can’t repeat.

She says: him used to be

Then they leave, but there is unsureness. How long should they wait to find out if they have done what they went there for? This is unsure.

They pass a person at the lights. One of them—him or her?—well, one of them is speaking English. The person at the lights turns around and pushes one of them, and that one falls against the other one and nearly falls into the street. A car horn goes. There is scare all around.

They do not speak English on the way home. They do not speak. When they step inside, something has started to happen. Their mouths are disappearing. When they unwrap their scarves, their mouths are strung over with white sticky strands. They stare, but they cannot speak. And when they open their coats, their chins are disintegrating and pieces of their jawbones fall to the floor.

(This is a true story.) They stand in the hallway, him and she. They stand there, this is they and it has happened.

He says:

She says:

(This is a true story.)