She says she’ll devise a whole new language, just for the both of you. And you smile and nod. You don’t know what she means, but it sounds very sweet. It comes out of nowhere. You’ve just had a nice conversation about the weather, nothing gripping, but thorough and accurate. And you’ve finished your main course, and you are studying the dessert menu, and you are expressing some interest in a New York cheesecake. Frankly, you were rather expecting the next words she said to be in acknowledgement of cheesecake, or weighing in with some counterargument for a dessert preference of her own.
“I’ll devise a whole new language, something only we can use,” she says, and she smiles at you. “I think you might be special.” And she brushes at your hand with her fingertips, just for a second. And you put the menu down so you can take her hand, but it’s too late, she’s got a menu of her own now.
“The New York cheesecake sounds good,” she says. “Yum yum!”
It’s only the second date, and you weren’t even sure you would get this far. The first date was fine. The first date was perfectly fine. You went to the cinema, and that meant you didn’t get much time to talk, a quick hello, exchange of pleasantries, an offer to buy her some popcorn. At the end of the movie you asked her whether she’d like to get something to eat – you had always factored a meal into both the time and money budgeted for the evening – and she looked at you very seriously, and said that maybe on the next date you could try speaking. She would see, she said, whether the right words would fit. And then she’d pulled you to her, and kissed you very softly upon the mouth. And that took you aback, because for the whole date she hadn’t touched you once, no arms rubbing against each other on the rests, no hands colliding in the popcorn box. The first date was perfectly fine, but inconclusive, and in your experience inconclusive dates rarely get followed up, and you’d been really rather surprised when she’d phoned you up the very next day asking whether she could see you again. Surprised, and pleased. And you wondered whether it had anything to do with that little kiss, whether it had been that that had sealed the deal.
You rather hope there’ll be another kiss tonight. You rather hope that may be possible. And this time you won’t be so startled. This time you’ll move your lips a little too, make it last a bit longer, really become an active participant in the whole kissing experience.
This, then, has been your date for words, and there have been so many of them. She has asked you about your childhood, about your job, about any aspirations you might still have. You’ve told her what you think about art and music and sport. You’ve listed for her all the countries you’ve ever visited, and given a brief account of the differing impressions they made upon you. She hasn’t said much. She hasn’t said anything at all, really. And you’re dimly aware that you’re talking too much and being a bit of a bore. And you determine that at any moment you’ll stop, you can rescue this, you’ll ask about her, you’ll even listen, maybe over the cheesecake. But she doesn’t seem irritated by you. She smiles at your jokes. She maintains eye contact. She hangs on each and every word.
You eat the cheesecake, and don’t ask about her after all, instead you entertain her with your take on religion and politics. To describe them there are words you’d never use, some with many syllables, words like ‘hierarchy’ and ‘libertarian’ and ‘diocese’. You feel like they’re being sucked from your brain. From a long forgotten dictionary in it. And it makes you feel a little tired, and you yawn, and you apologise.
You pay for both meals, and she accepts that, she says that next time dinner will be on her. And you stand outside with her on the pavement, and you know she’ll be going home now, and you wonder whether there’s any way to follow. You thank her for a lovely evening. You say you hope you can do something like it again. “No, better,” she says, “next time it’ll be better. Oh, the language we shall share!” And she pulls you towards her again, and this time you’re ready for it. Your lips meet. And your mouth opens just a little. And something is pushed in, and you think it might be her tongue. And it’s the last thing you remember for a while.
You wake up, and it’s dark, and it’s so quiet, and you don’t know where you are. And you try to move, but you can’t. Your hands and feet can do no more than jerk a few inches. And you wonder whether this is some sort of a paralysis, have you had an accident, are you in hospital? (A very dark hospital, a very quiet hospital?) And you’re lying on your back, and you hate sleeping on your back, and your body tries to turn, and it can’t, and something cuts into your wrists and your ankles. And there’s a smell in the air, it’s like warm bread, or something sweeter, it’s soft, and it does nothing to reassure you. You cry out. “Help!” you say. “Help!”
And now there’s a chink of light, and a door has opened, and you can’t see properly but at least this means you aren’t blind as well. And it’s her, surely it’s her. It takes a moment for you to remember her name, and you flush with embarrassment, and you’re glad it’s so dark so she can’t see. “Help, Tracey!” you say. “Ssh,” she replies, and she comes to you, stands over you big and tall, she seems such a big mass there in the blackness, and she strokes your forehead. “Ssh,” and that’s the only word she’ll use, and it’s not even a word. Then she gets up and leaves, and closes the door behind her, and the world turns blind again.
You don’t think you’ll sleep, not when you’re on your back, not when you’re so afraid, frankly – but you must do, because you wake up again, and this time there’s light, and there she is again, smiling down, “Help,” you say again. And you try to move, and of course you can’t, because you see you’re tied to the bed by wire cord. And she tells you that this is the last time you will ever hear her speak English to you. It’s not a threat, it sounds like a promise. The new language will start right now, and she thinks you’ll like it, she’s got such a lovely assortment of nouns and adjectives for you both to play with! – oh, she can’t wait to get started, her enthusiasm feels so cheap to her like this, expressed in a language that is so very old and banal and is shared with so many strangers. You ask her to release you, and she just shakes her head. You beg her by name, and she says that Tracey isn’t her name any longer; she doesn’t know what her new name shall be yet, you’ll both find one together. You don’t have a name either. Choosing you a name will be a pleasure she will reserve for herself alone. “I’m going to leave you now, and you can get some more rest,” she says. “And the next time I come through that door, no more English, just our language, just for the two of us.” “Help!” you cry out, and she tells you that from now on the word isn’t ‘help’, it’s ‘handbag’. “Handbag!” you say, hoping that might do the trick, that she’ll cut your bonds and set you free. “Ssh,” she says again, kisses you upon the lips, just once but on the lips – and goes.
That first week you work on elementary vocabulary.
She brings in a bowl of fruit. And your stomach growls at the sight of it, that cheesecake seems a very long time ago. She smiles expectantly at you. “Let me out of here!” you shout. And without a word she turns, and leaves, and takes the fruit with her.
She leaves you alone for hours.
She brings in a bowl of fruit. She smiles expectantly at you, as if this is the first time she has brought it in, that this is the first expectant smile too. “Please,” you say. And without a word she turns, and leaves, and takes the fruit with her.
She brings in a bowl of fruit. And smiles. And it’s expectant. “Please,” you say, and it’s only a whisper, it’s just a little whisper. But she looks so sad at that, and clearly disappointed. She turns, she leaves, she takes the fruit with her.
She brings in a bowl of fruit. She smiles. Not expecting anything much this time, but it’s hopeful. Full of hope, and has she been crying? You think she may have been crying just a little, and the smile is a brave smile, this is hard on her as well. And your heart goes out to her, in spite of the hunger, and the rage, and the fear. You don’t say a word. You won’t say a word. She takes from the bowl an apple. She holds it up. “Lampshade,” she says. You stay silent. She nods at you, encouragingly. “Lampshade,” she says again. You glare at her. She tries to smile again, but the smile wobbles. “Lampshade,” she says. “Lampshade. Lampshade. Lampshade. Lampshade.”
And at last, sadly, she gets up. Puts the lampshade back in the bowl. Turns. Walks to the door.
“Lampshade,” you say, quietly.
She turns back.
“Lampshade,” you say again.
She nods. She takes the lampshade once more from the bowl. “Lampshade,” she says. “Lampshade,” you say. “Lampshade,” she says. “Lampshade,” you say. “Lampshade?” she asks. “Lampshade,” you dutifully admit. She takes out a banana. “Caterpillar,” she says. “Caterpillar,” you agree. “Caterpillar.” “Caterpillar.” She takes out a strawberry. Holds it deliberately between thumb and forefinger, and it looks so red and juicy. “Plinge,” she says. “Plinge,” you say. And she feeds you your plinge as a reward, she holds it to your lips, and you suck at it greedily. “Plinge,” you say again, and she smiles, nods, she gives you another plinge. “Caterpillar,” you say, and she unpeels a caterpillar for you. “Lampshade,” you say, and she patiently holds the lampshade straight as you bite into it, bite deep to the very core. You don’t know what a core is. You gesture to it with your nose. It takes a while for her to work out what you want. Then she has a think, this is one word she’s not translated yet. “Basket,” she decides. “Basket,” you say, and she laughs, and she balances the basket upright on her palm, and you gnaw away at it, you suck the last juice from that basket, you suck at her fingers too.
She brings in picture books. And together you rename the animal kingdom. She calls a camel a passport, a cow a fork. She accepts some of your suggestions. You name a hippopotamus a divot, and there’s something so right about that, something so divot-ish about the hippo, and you feel proud.
She doesn’t only feed you fruit. She brings you meals of hedgerows and hedgehogs, of wannabes, of steaming sleet with equanimity on the side.
And sometimes she’ll reward you with a kiss. Just a little one, for being a good boy. You try to name a kiss. You call it ‘tabletop’, you call it ‘tennisball’. You call it ‘moist’. None of them seem quite to fit, and whenever you want to ask for one, she doesn’t seem to know what you’re talking about. “Moist!” you’ll say, begging, wheedling, when all you want is just one little bit of touch, something sweet to keep you going through the night. “Moist!” And she’ll just shake her head and frown.
Verbs are easy in your new language. There are no tenses. ‘To eat’ is ‘horserace’. But there’s no ‘will horserace’ or ‘have horseraced’, there’s no future and no past. When you eat, you eat. You live in the present, and that’s all you need.
And one day you learn pronouns. ‘I’ is ‘James’. ‘You’ is ‘Ian’. ‘We’ is the most important of all, and the most complex, isn’t all of this about ‘we’? ‘We’ can be ‘Mary’ when it’s just as standard, but it can be ‘Margaret’ if there’s a hint of something sweeter, ‘Moira’ if there’s real togetherness to it, it’s ‘Maud’ when it’s passionate, ‘Molly’ when it’s red hot.
There is no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Not yet. Not until there’s a need for one. There will never be a ‘they’.
They say the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow. And you have a hundred different words for the shade of the wallpaper, for the crack on the ceiling, for the sound the door makes when it opens and it’s her and she’s there and you’re with her again.
You name her ‘Buttercup’. You think it’s a pretty name. And she gets angry. And she makes you understand why. You’re using an English word, you’re taking the meaning of an old dead language and ascribing it to her. She is so upset she leaves you alone for a whole day, and you feel hungry and lonely and ever so sorry. When she returns, at last, you can see her face is red from tears. You try out a new name on her. So tentatively, because this feels like the most important gift you have ever offered. You like the way the syllables play off each other, the teasing hiss of the ‘x’, the lips-together warmness of the ‘m’, the reassuring solidity of that final unshakeable ‘nt’. You like the way the word stretches your mouth, ‘Excrement’, you call her ‘Excrement’, and Excrement tries it out for size, she plays with it for a while, and it makes her smile, and that night she undresses you, she strokes at your sandwich, she tickles at your torpor, she climbs on top of you and holds you firm between her soapstains and rides you like the double glazing that you are.
One morning you wake to discover that the wire cords have been replaced by silk rope. And one morning, not so long after, you wake and find the ropes have gone too. You stretch, and it hurts, and it’s a good hurt. You get to your feet. You hold on to the wall. You work your way towards the door.
And at any moment you feel it’s a trick, that she’ll be behind you, coming at you with her kisses and feeding you lampshades. But you’re in the hallway, and you’ve never been out here before, she didn’t let you get this deep into the house even on your birthday when she let you out of your room and let you into the kitchen and tied you to the chair and she’d made you cheesecake, oh God, love her. You’re in the hallway, and you’re at the front door, and you’re fumbling at the lock, and the door is moving! and you’re moving! and you’re outside! and there’s such fresh air! The fresh air is spattered with bits of water, and you lift up your head high to catch the pimp (rain?) and it feels cold and carpet (wet?) against your skin, and you don’t mind you suddenly feel turtle (-?). And you realise you’ve been standing in the garden for minutes now, and if you want to escape, you’d better move on.
And you walk, you lurch, you try to remember how to put one foot in front of the other without falling down. And there are words all around you, silly words, like ‘car’ and ‘park’, like ‘launderette’, like the combination of ‘pizza’ to ‘hut’, and the world no longer seems fresh, you miss the warm bready sweetness of your home – and all around you there is only babble, people are speaking so fast, and you have to concentrate hard to figure out what they’re saying, the old language seems so very far away now – and ugly too, it’s like random words have been rammed together with no thought to the poetry or music of how that might sound, and you wonder that anyone can keep that many disconnected noises in their brain and blow them out of their mouths so shamelessly. And they’re staring at you, too, and you wonder whether they can tell you’re different now, that you were once one of them, but you’re a foreigner forever, the shapes of your language are different to theirs, and capable of expressing so much more, and they’re jealous, if they hear the range of your vocabulary they’ll want to tear those words right out of you – so you keep your limps clamped shut, just in case the words leak out – and just so that your words aren’t infected with theirs, that they won’t change meaning, so that ‘featherduster’ will remain ‘featherduster’, so that there’ll always be an ‘onion’. They stare at you for these reasons. And maybe too because you aren’t wearing any beverages and your pebbles are showing.
This is a mistake. And you try to find your way back home, back to her, back to Excrement and all those possibilities – but all the streets look the same, and all the houses on all the streets look the same, and there’s no one to ask, there’s no one to offer handbag. And you’re panicked now, running through people’s gardens, calling her name over and over again, at the very top of your voice, all your bits flying in the wind, all getting soaked with the pimp, and – oh – there she is! – oh my God – oh my Badger – there she is, she’s looking for you, she’s in her garden, she’s looking for you, and now she sees you – oh most truculent Badger! – and she sees you, and she’s running towards you too, her arms out wide – “Daddy!” she calls, and that’s it, she’s named you. And she wraps you up in her arms, and takes you back indoors.
You take her to bed. To her bed, not to yours. You lay her down. You teach her that the word for ‘kiss’ is ‘moist’, oh, now she gets it. You teach her that the word for ‘sex’ is ‘mulch’. You teach her the word for ‘love’ is ‘mond’. You don’t need to teach her the word for ‘enough’.
“Mond,” you say, and point at her. “Mond Ian.”
“Mond Ian,” she agrees, and you make mond all over again.
Now you’re free from the bedroom you understand that she goes to work every day. She goes back into that big nasty old world, she does a job to make money so she can feed you and keep you safe. She speaks another man’s language, and swallows down her own. And the sacrifice of that makes you cry.
You never want to go outside again, you tell her. And whenever she leaves the house, you ask her to lock you in your bedroom. The first time she doesn’t tie you to the bed, and that just makes you panic – what if you sleepwalk? What if you sleepwalk right through the window? What if you sleepwalk, then wake up to find you’re out in the world again? The silk ropes aren’t strong enough, you tell her. Use the cords.
“Mond Ian, Daddy,” she tells you every day, and “Mond Ian, Excrement,” you say back. And you sleep together most nights, and most nights you explore each other’s bodies, and find in them whole new landscapes of sensations just aching to be given names.
She falls pregnant. And you spend weeks renaming the new pronouns you’ll need. You decide that if the baby is a boy, you’ll call ‘he’ ‘Sharon’. And if it’s a girl, ‘she’ can be ‘Jim’. …You won’t think about actual names for the baby yet. That can wait.
And when she’s due, the stomach looking fat enough to burst, she says she’ll find her own way to the hospital. You can just stay right where you are and wait. She ties you to the bed, she leaves several days’ worth of food within easy reach in case there are complications. She says she’ll be back home as soon as she can, Daddy, and she’ll bring with her a whole new life you can share.
You can’t horserace for all the excitement.
And a day or three later, who’s counting, you hear her come through the front door, and there’s crying, and you hope it isn’t her crying – and you strain against your bonds to be set free. She enters your room then, and she’s holding it in her arms, and it looks a bit like her, and looks a bit like you, and a bit like neither of you, quite honestly, it looks like a bald dwarf. “Daddy, Daddy!” she says, and that’s how you meet your daughter, you strapped naked to the bed with cold trays of hedgerows by your side, she screaming her head off. You look at Excrement, and she’s gazing adoringly, but not at you, at it, at the baby, and she no longer looks quite like Excrement, she looks like the Mother, she looks like the Conveyorbelt. And that’s how you’ll think of her from now on, no matter how much you try not to, just another conveyorbelt proud of her darling miracle child. The Conveyorbelt puts the baby on your bare chest, and unties your arms so you can hold her, but the baby doesn’t want to be there, not on that stranger’s skin. And you’re yet you’re trying to show it mond, all the mond you can, but you don’t feel it in your heart, and the baby can tell, the baby doesn’t want to know. “Ssh, ssh,” says the Conveyorbelt, and scoops the baby up in her arms again, and the howing stops, and you feel that first stab of pure jealousy.
You promise you’ll be the best father you can be. You’ll teach her how to speak, give her all the words she’ll ever need. You’ll strap her down in her cot, feed her lampshades and caterpillars and plinges. You are told to stop – you’re told the infant is only two days old. It is too early for lessons. You’re told to wait.
So you wait. And maybe the baby is softening towards you. Maybe as the months pass it starts to show some affection. It no longer screams at the very sight of you – not each and every time, anyway. Sometimes it just looks at you directly and fearlessly, and glares with undisguised loathing. Sometimes it just throws up.
One day, as you’re sitting at dinner, the baby speaks up. “Aubergine!” It’s its first word. And the Conveyorbelt is delighted, she lifts it up in her arms, and dances with it around the room. And you sit there, forcing out a smile, forcing out congratulations – and you think, ‘aubergine’? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
And once the words start, they won’t stop. “Artichoke!” “Censorship!” “Dogmatism!” “Peanut!” “Rhomboid!” “Fart!” And each time the Conveyorbelt applauding at the genius of it all. And then the truth dawns on you. Why she’s been locking the child away for so many hours in that room away from you. She’s been teaching it how to speak all by herself. She’s been doing your job. She’s been denying you that role.
And that wouldn’t be so bad. You could live with that. You could join in, it wouldn’t be too late – she could teach it the nouns, you could start on participles and prepositional adverbs. But. It’s a different language she’s teaching it. It’s a different language altogether.
And the child babbles again, “Rape my bollards!” and mother laughs like it’s the wittiest thing on earth, and mother and child exchange a knowing glance, and you realise that the child is complicit.
You offer to hold her. You reach out to take her. And the child looks scandalised that you would dare, and your darling love says, “I don’t think so!” And then claps her hand to her mouth. As if she could stop the words coming out. But it’s too late. And she has spoken the old language. She promised, and now she’s angry, as if breaking her promise is your fault, as if you’re the one who made her a liar. She shouts at you, says terrible truths, and she uses the new language and bits of the old, and the baby starts to cry, and you can’t be sure whether because of the noise or the interjection of words it cannot hope to understand.
The Conveyorbelt wants to sleep alone that night. You agree. You know you’ll never sleep with her again. And when you creep into her bedroom you tread softly so as not to disturb her. You don’t want her to wake until you’re ready. With silk ropes you bind her feet to the bed – by the time you start on the arms she’s stirring, but there’s nothing she can do, and you hold her down, you hold her hard against the mattress, and she gives in.
“Ssh,” you say. “Ssh.” And she shouts out, “No!” and “Help!” and “Please!”
You take the baby out of the cot at the foot of her bed. Mercifully, it doesn’t struggle. Its mother starts to cry.
“Ssh,” you say again. You kiss her on the forehead. And you tell her the truth, in spite of all. “Mond Ian.”
“Please,” she says. “I love her.”
And the old language confuses you, and you don’t know whether she merely got her pronouns wrong.
You hold the guacamole over her face until she’s sleeping. Or, at least, until she’s still.
Downstairs, to the hallway, the front door. And by now the baby is trying to resist. It’s kicking, it’s biting, it’s screaming – she’s screaming, your little daughter, your own. And that’s good, because you know all those screams are just words needing to be moulded, and you’re the one who can mould them. You pull open that door, look out at a world that’s dark and cold and wet. But it’ll be all right now, this time you’ll have someone to talk to. And out you go.