Small Talk

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After long years spent living in the heart of Africa, I headed home. All those days spent in the equatorial sun had tanned my skin to a golden brown. Rays of light had penetrated deep into me, turning my dark hair blonde. With no inclination or motivation to learn the local language, I had become accustomed to being the outsider. I was happy at the corner of a room. Not talking. Allowing the strange voices to drift through me. I’d always hated small talk anyway. Endless hours of chatter pretending I cared about somebody who was a stranger to me. Deep in Africa, I never had to resort to such formalities.

Going back home meant going back to the tedium of socialising. Going back home meant questions. Endless questions. More infinite talk about the weather. More conversations about meaningless topics. What I did last night. Last weekend. Last month. An endless amount of judgment. Family thinking the worst of me, friends secretly discussing me. Long hours of bullshit awaited.

Dreading my return, I meandered back to England, taking as long as possible to reach my destination. Revelling in the feeling of anonymity. Being in places where nobody knew me, where I no longer had to be me anymore. I could be anybody. I enjoyed the feeling of hopelessness. Arriving in strange new places, not knowing how to order a meal. Relying on the kindness of many a middle aged waitress to bring me something edible. I listened in on unintelligible conversations that only I was privy to. Secret lovers whispered near me, ignoring me. I couldn’t understand their French, their German, their Flemish. I was invisible.

As I narrowed in on England, a strong sense of foreboding came over me. I was going back to an ordinary life. A life where I was him again. The me I didn’t like. I would be pulled back into dull interactions with my co-workers. I would be forced to endlessly repeat every tale of my absence. Every special experience that I’d had would be slowly taken from me as time passed on. I would cease to truly have anything to look back on. My entire life would be taken into the memories of others, no longer to be mine.

Crossing the sea, it dawned on me that it didn’t have to be that way. I could still be anybody. I didn’t have to go home. I could travel to another town. Far off. Far from familiar faces and catch up chats. But then I’d still be forced into the torture of sharing myself. Answering the questions. Where I’m from. How old I am. What I’ve been doing. Where I’ve been. I would still have to give myself away to others and fall back into the charade of living. Pretending I cared about people who were just pretending they cared about me. Escape was a fantasy.

However as I leaned on the rail of the ferry, watching the water stream away, an old French man came over to me. He scratched his chin lazily and spoke some unknown phrase. I simply shrugged and gave the reply “No Francais”. In a heartbeat he was gone, turning swiftly on his heels.

It dawned on me then, that the anybody I needed to be, was a foreigner. The easiest way to get out of a conversation was to feign no knowledge of language. From that moment on I decided that if anybody spoke to me, I would simply shrug and say “No English!”

With this ruse in mind, I headed far from home, to a new city and set about living as though I were an immigrant. Those years in the sun were helpful in that regard. Whenever entering a shop, or restaurant, I would affect a look of ignorance and confusion. I would stare hopelessly at words pretending not to understand. As it had been in my travels, often a kindly person would help me, guiding me along helpfully. I found a job in a factory preparing sandwiches, a task where little language was necessary. My co-workers attempted to talk to me, until it became apparent to them that it was impossible. They got some details from me. A name. A country. After that they paid me little mind. I was ignored. Becoming invisible again, excused from social graces. It was then that I became aware that these social graces were a sham as I had believed all along.

Co-workers who pretended to be the best of friends, secretly loathed each other. Men who bragged of their female conquests were secretly gay. One moment a person would be laughing at the jokes of another. The moment the person was gone they would be complaining in disgust. Conversations were layered with subterfuge. Even the secret conversations I was privy to had their layers. Nobody was ever honest with another. People spoke only words they believed others wanted to hear. Everybody’s life was a facade. A sequence of small lies wrapped up to trick others into believing they were better people than they actually were.

In that way, I was no different from them. My own life was a ruse, but at least it was an honest one that allowed me to be the person I was content being.

The hardest part was holding my tongue when my co-workers began to talk about me. Not behind my back, but in front of my face. They gave me the nickname Ham so as not to draw my suspicions. They complained about me whenever they needed to feel better about what they lacked. They attacked my appearance. They berated my lack of speech. They mocked me tirelessly, for no simple reason other than I was an easy target, unable to defend myself. 

At times I wanted to reveal my trick. To jump up and scream in their faces. To force them to confront their behaviour. But instead, I continued to feign ignorance. Responding to any chatter around me with a neutral smile.

Over time, I got bored of their secrets and conversations. They became trivial to me. I realised that although I had wanted to exclude myself from being an active participant in these social interactions, I had become an inactive participant instead. I was no longer talking about weather, but I was listening to people talk about it. Eventually my boredom got the better of me and I simply stopped listening. I had no more use for the English language, so I stopped reading too. Never bothering to bring my eyes up to read signs, menus or words. I would only have to pretend I didn’t understand them anyway.

Not speaking English, didn’t mean I couldn’t speak. I was not a mute. I had to speak some language, so at first I simply spoke gibberish in a manner that sounded vaguely Russian. It fooled people enough to believe I was actually saying something, in some unknown language.

Slowly, my gibberish started to form into a new language. Whenever somebody would wave hello to me, I would say “blicktonov”. My gibberish took on meaning. I added clicks and grunts to my tones. Grammar started to form. I began to process a vocabulary.

One day, I awoke and realised that I was no longer thinking in English. I was thinking in this new language. It was the catalyst that propelled my language to grow exponentially. It grew subconsciously, without reason or analysis. A clock was a “binckt” but I never decided on the word, it just came to me and fit into place perfectly. I could speak my own language fluently yet nobody could understand it.

Then, I stopped understanding them too. My new language slowly eroded away at my English. Each time I lifted a pen to write, I would find myself taking longer to find the words. The space in my brain where English once existed was turning blank. The new language was like a virus eating away at old words, replacing them with the new.

Soon I became the person that I was pretending to be. When I looked at a newspaper, all I saw were shapes with no meaning. I could no longer understand the world around me, but it didn’t matter, because all along I’d been pretending not to understand it anyway.

As a true outsider I was forgiven any social faux pas. Society no longer mattered to me, because I wasn’t really a part of it. I was not privy to connections with the culture around me, I was of a different culture. A culture created from inside of myself. And I was happy, I was truly the person I wanted to be. I never pretended to be somebody I wasn’t. I never pretended to love somebody who I hated. What I loved, I loved and I spoke of that love in my own language although nobody understood. I transcended the mundanity of the world around me because I was no longer part of that world. I created my own world, with my own meanings, with my own emotions. I realised that our language had just become another material thing, pushing us away from happiness, keeping us from ourselves.

Despite all this, I was not lonely. I had girlfriends when I felt the urge. We spoke through the language of our bodies. I became an expert at noticing the slightest gesture on the face of a person and what it meant. I could tell how a person was feeling from the strength of their gait or the shape of their lips. For the first time in my life, I truly felt connected to a person because I could see them for who they really were. Not the lies they were spinning through speech, but the real person. Before, I simply learnt about the needs of people and not the person themselves. Now I truly knew people. I fell in love with people, taking them in one by one.

For a time, I lost nothing of value and my life was one of sweetness. I loved. But soon my love turned to loss.

The freedom of my own language became a prison. I became trapped in myself. Without anybody to completely communicate with, I was as good as dead. Without being able to speak, I could not tell a secret. Without being able to write a message, I could never truly profess the love I felt for others. When I died, I would be forgotten as nobody could remember me. Anything I wrote would be lost, untranslatable. I had transcended the society around me but without that society, I was nothing. I was a mad man. An incomprehensible lunatic living on the fringes of the world.

An urge grew within me. To speak. To converse. To discuss. But without a person to listen, I was just talking to myself. The realisation came too late. I tried to gather back the language I had lost, but without a guide, it was impossible. I looked at English and saw a jumble of letters. Even the alphabet seemed strange to me. Shapes. I would stare for hours, peering into books, looking for some way to understand, but nothing ever hit me. I listened to conversations endlessly, hoping something would come back, but the words simply floated through me incomprehensibly.

Suddenly the world was filled with a scramble of words that I neither understood or had the means to understand. Before the words surrounding me had emboldened me, they were the foundation that my life was built on. Not knowing the words allowed me to create my own words, my own world, opposed from everything around me. That opposition eventually faltered. Not being a part of the world, not being a part of anything meant I was nothing. Every effort I took to achieve comprehension of English failed and increased my lust for conversation. I babbled to my co-workers in the hopes that one of them may understand anything I said. Even the simplest of things. How are you today? What’s your name? Did you watch anything good on TV last night? I blathered for hours to anybody about anything. Some tried to listen but nobody heard a thing.

In desperation, I ran back to my home. My friends shunned me. My family disowned me. I could not understand why, because I could not understand them. I heard their words, but the only meaning I got was from the look of fear in their eyes. My desperation swelled into panic. I searched for somebody that understood me. Anybody. But nobody could.

Then they took me away. Locked me up. They spoke to me. I spoke to them. A waste of breath. They looked at me with pity in their eyes, they ticked the boxes on their forms and they sighed.

Once a week, I met a man. A psychiatrist, I suppose. Somebody to figure out what was wrong with me. His words were just as incomprehensible as anybody elses. They took me nowhere. I was lost in a world I had willingly created.

Then one afternoon, lying in my bedroom, I heard a sound. A low murmur tickling my ears. The sound was familiar, the old whine of a trumpet, the deep hum of an old record. A sad woman’s voice rang out, filled with sorrow. As I lay there, the sound took me back. Lying in the backseat of a car as a boy, rain flicking off the window, the ping of droplets hitting the roof. That same sorrowful voice crying from the radio and the words. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

At first the words were nothing but shadows in my mind, but the shadows made sense. They seemed to fit together, seemed to mean something. They repeated themselves, moved over my lips. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

The song continued and for a few moments, I was no longer lying on a bed, but lying in the backseat of that old car. The damp smell of the rain coming in through a crack in the window and the worn leather sticking to my cheek. Those words flowing through my mind “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

As the song came to its end, I came back to my room. Jumping up, I grabbed for a pen and paper and scrawled the words. Moved my eyes over them, realised their meaning.

From that moment on, I became obsessed with the radio in the common room. I would sit beside it waiting for another song to awaken some lost memory. I would continue to repeat those words to myself over and over, praying I would never forget them. It’s easy to live when you’re in love. It’s easy to live when you’re in love. It’s easy to live when you’re in love.

That week, I said them to the psychiatrist. Hoping, praying it would give him an epitphany. But instead he was unphased. He wrote something onto a piece of paper and simply nodded. This only added fuel to my obsession. Each day, I would awaken and go to the radio. Some days, I would flick between the stations hoping for some glimpse of the past. As each day passed, I became more desperate. I slept a little less, stopped eating, stopped cleaning. Each moment not listening, was a moment when I may miss the next song. Vaguely, I started to notice the nurses changing their attitude towards me.

Then one day, I awoke and the radio was gone. Immediately, I was thrown into a rage. I screamed and shouted. But as always, nobody could hear me. They pinned me down, tied me up. All I could whimper were the words. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.” They nodded with sympathy, fake understanding, but I knew they thought me mad.

Maybe I was mad. No way to communicate, a stranger in a world I had lived in all of my life. Isn’t that what mad is? Still, I was hungry to get back what I had lost,  deciding to be patient. More would come back to me, it would just take time. I waited and I listened and slowly the words did come back. From adverts on the ward TV. The hum of an old song on the lips of a nurse. The drum beat in the ringtone of a doctor’s phone.

Billie Holiday. A rainy car trip. The Beatles. My first kiss. AC/DC. A friend’s funeral.

The words came back to and they all made sense. 

The Spice Girls. Serge Gainsbourg. Leonard Bernstein.

My doctor’s expression slowly started to change.

Chuck Berry. Elton John. The Animals.

I started to communicate, started to be somewhat understood. The only words I remembered, the words from songs. The only meaning I could convey, the meaning from lyrics.

When I was feeling sad, I used Brian Wilson. When I felt happy, I used Michael Jackson.

My doctor’s scribbling got more incessant. We started to communicate, if only through lyrics.

Then I awoke, thinking in English again. It was as if a dark cloak had been removed from over my mind, like I could see after years of blindness. Quickly my language came back to me. I started to talk. To talk about everything with anyone. Every day more and more words came back. Every day I would go to sleep feeling invigorated. Finally, I could communicate again. I could write. I could read. I rarely stopped.

I travelled back home. I met my old friends. My family. They asked questions. Questions I was happy to answer. We talked about everything and anything. I gave away every part of myself to everyone. I spoke every memory I could remember, wrote every tale I knew until my mouth was dry and my fingers were blistered. I wrote my words wherever I could scrawl them. Spray painted on walls, carved into trees, penned onto bathroom doors. I would never be forgotten, I would live forever through my writing, my stories, my memories.

I talked, I keep talking. I will always talk. I’m a part of the world. No longer an outsider. I’m me and a me I’m happy to be. No longer trapped in madness. Enjoying other people.

Oh and just incase you’re wondering. It looks like its going to rain today. I had a great weekend. The Arsenal match was a classic on Saturday. I went to the cinema on Sunday. I think you’re hilarious, you’re oh so funny. How are your wife and kids? Doing well, I hope. What about your dog? Is it still fat and angry? Good good.

And me? Well, I’m fine.

Thanks for asking.

3 comments
  1. cri said:

    When i first started reading this I thought it was true and that you had actually done this, i am right in assuming that its fiction? But i get the feeling from reading that youre blog that it is something that goes through youre head and alot of the views are how you feel in general.
    so where are you now? travelling still?
    i feel we might be kindred spirits, have very similar viewpoints on the world. take care

    • Dan B said:

      Yes, its fiction but based somewhat on personal experience. I’m currently living in Korea and am also a bit of an introvert. I realised one good thing about living here is that I get out of a lot of social intetaction due to not knowing the language. I was thinking when I go back home I could just pretend I don’t speak English to avoid small talk with people. Then the story grew from there.

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