Native Tongue (short fiction)

Hi! I’m sorry but I’m going to have to speak to you using this notepad today. I’m in so much pain.

Thank you. It’s quite bad. So you know that ulcer I told you about, the one on the back of my tongue that I got because of my filling coming out? Well, I ate some pizza last night and I was really hungry and didn’t wait for it to cool. They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, that’s definitely me with eating hot pizza. Anyway, now I have a burn on top of the ulcer, and I can’t speak. I tried and it’s just a noise. The cat sounded more like she was speaking in intelligible English when she meowed at me this morning.

I think I will be. It just needs time to heal and I need to stay quiet because speaking hurts. You look… disorientated. It’s so good to see you, though. I mean, I know it’s not even been 24 hours but it’s still so good to see you.

Oh god, I’m sorry. I forget you’re not an early riser, like me. I was awake before it got light today. I can’t even blame nextdoor’s cockerel. I think it has jet lag or something. I wanted to come and talk to you early on because there’s some stuff I really need to say. I did text but I’m guessing because you weren’t awake you haven’t looked at your phone. I was turning things over in my mind and I decided the only thing to do was to come and speak to you in person – well, write to you in person – as soon as possible.

It is serious, I suppose. But not in a bad way. Well, I hope you won’t view it in a bad way. That’s what I need to find out. But I think it’s important you hear it directly from me as soon as possible. Not that there’s any chance you’d hear it from anyone else.

You remember that day a couple of weeks ago, when we went swimming in the old quarry?

Oh, I’m so glad you feel like that about it because that’s exactly how I feel too. I can’t remember when I’ve had a more magical day. Not for years. Maybe not ever. That last hour especially, when we were drying out on the stone ledge and the others had left and the sun was coming through that gap in the rocks. You remember we were talking about relationships, and the way that in some ways when you start seeing a new person, it could seem easier and less potentially problematic to leave out a lot of the more complex details about your past life, to kind of edit yourself, but how we both believe it’s better, in the long run, to tell the person absolutely everything about who you are and what you’ve been through, because it sets you off on a more honest footing, and it means it’s less likely that something is going to come back and bite you later on?

Yes. Me too! I totally feel like that. And that’s why I needed to come over this morning, because there has been something that has been bothering me, and I really did want to make sure you knew about everything, and everyone.

No, no. I did tell you the truth. Those are the only seven: Ben, Craig, Ryan, nice Roger, horrible Roger, Bill and Cogan. This other thing I need to tell you is… a bit more unusual.

Yes, it does involve a man. But not in the way you might imagine. It needs a bit of background. Are we ok for time? I need to pick my bike up at 10am. You have to be at the surgery by when?

Oh, we’ll be fine then. I’ll try to be brief, but I’ll make sure you get the details. Also, my wrist aches. You can see how my calligraphy is already deteriorating. This always happens. I think it’s because I don’t write as much as I once did. Although I do it a bit. As you’ll find out. Can you still read this clearly?

Phew. Good. Well, I told you that my mum and dad broke up when I was 11, my sister Sally stayed with mum and I went to live with dad in this kind of… well, you wouldn’t exactly describe it as a commune, but I suppose people today might call it an “off grid community”, up on the foothills of the moor. Huts made of eucalyptus, goats wandering around, lots of soup and people meditating, that sort of thing. The whole thing fell to bits after a couple of years – the farmer who’d let the land to us sold it off to developers, plus I think the results of the free love thing there whose rules had only ever been half-established caused some rancour and jealousy – but a couple of years is a long time at that age, when you’re very mouldable, and when I went back to conventional schooling afterwards the experience was more than enough to make me the weird kid. I was very withdrawn in my early teens, didn’t really speak to anyone, lost myself in music. I missed Sally. We’d been close. Did I tell you she used to pay me to be able to squeeze my spots? 25 pence, or 50 pence if it was a really big one. But by now she was a bit cool for me, going to Bristol and London to see all these bands. I essentially only had one friend, a quite gothy girl called Maureen who also had a single mum, and one day we both told our mums we were staying at one another’s houses and hitchhiked to London to the fanclub convention for the band we loved the most. They were called Adverse Camber. You must remember them? Sort of electro but glam, too, and kind of… folk, in a weird way, but also very urban. It was wonderful: we went to Pizza Express first then met all these Adverse Camber fans from all over Europe. And that was how I got into having penpals. This was all before the internet of course.

Yes! Including Gerta. That’s how we first met. I’m so glad you got on with her. She’s the one who’s become a friend forever – at least, I hope it will be forever – but at one point I must have been regularly writing to seven or eight other teenagers, all around Europe… Switzerland, Italy, The Czech Republic, Sweden. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of telling you that I’ve always loved writing letters. And when email came in, and then Facebook and apps and such, I began to miss it. I wonder how many important things we’ve put in emails over the years that we would like to remember. But where are they now? Lost in the ether, forever. Or on some old broken laptop. That seems so, so sad to me.

Yes! Exactly! Because you don’t look back on it, you don’t go through those old devices. Who has time to properly archive themselves digitally? It’s all moving too fast. I was thinking about this a lot when I broke up with Horrible Roger. As I told you, that was the worst of my break-ups. I was in a very vulnerable place, mostly because of all the insidious ways he had repeatedly chipped away at my self-esteem and belittled me, although I didn’t realise that at the time. About a month after we broke up, I decided to write all my feelings down in a long letter to him. I wrote it like all my old letters: properly laid out, dated, with my address in the top right hand corner. You don’t need to know what it said, because I don’t feel any of those things now, can’t really remember them, and they were just a capsule of the person he’d made me. I came so close to posting the letter, every day, for what must have been a fortnight, but I remembered something my grandma had told me about missives written in the heat of passion or anger, and how it’s always best to sit on them for a while, until you’ve calmed down, and that was such good advice, and I’m so glad I remembered it and didn’t let Roger have another little piece of me, when he’d already taken so many and ground them down under the soles of his shit trainers. Now here’s the weird bit. You remember that old defunct postbox I showed you on our walk last week? The Victorian one with that beautifully weather-stained paint, in the barn wall? Well one day, when I still had this letter in my rucksack, and was just about stopping myself from posting it, I was walking on the edge of the moor, and I saw the postbox, and I put the letter in the slot. I can’t tell you quite why I did it, but I had got to the point where I didn’t want it with me any more, burning a hole in the front pocket of my rucksack, yet I also somehow didn’t want to rip it up or chuck it on the fire. I suppose it was a symbolic gesture: consigning it, and that entire relationship, to an unreachable place in the deep past.

I know: it all seems very odd indeed. But I promise I am going somewhere. Somewhere you’ll probably find even more surprising. And I do think you want to hear this. I did worry for a while that the letter might still somehow find its way to Roger but then I began to think more rationally. Nobody had opened that box for what was probably more than two decades and the likely fate of my letter was that it would gradually become part of some small creature’s nest or get eaten by slugs. “Good!” I thought, my mind on sustainability. But then what must have been about a month later, I found another letter waiting on my doormat. Seeing my handwritten address – the writing was very beautiful and ornate, the letters and numbers curling around one another very attractively – I got that same tingle of excitement I used to get as a teenager when one of my fanclub friends had got in touch with me, and I frantically tore the seal open. What I found inside utterly bamboozled me: three A3 sheets of personal correspondence, in the same florid hand, aimed at me, responding directly to many of the feelings I’d detailed in my own letter of a month ago. The sender’s address was Roger’s but I had seen Roger’s handwriting, and it was that of exactly what he was: a yobbish 44 year-old milksop who could barely tie his own shoelaces. This penmanship spoke of worldliness, kindness, calm. Also, it was signed “Ambrose”. It wasn’t until I’d read it through twice more, with a head spinning no less rapidly, that I noticed the date in the top left corner “March 11th, 1923”. Precisely fifty years before my birth. I didn’t understand everything this Ambrose character was saying to me – his thoughts were peppered with such phrases as “drawing yer mouth abroad”, “spurtin ashes” and his assessment of Roger’s character via the evidence in my original letter led him to conclude that he was a “dummon”, a “gurt noodle” and a “right slack bey” – but the general tone was sympathetic and thoughtful and if this was a practical joke, it was an extremely nuanced one. So I responded in the only way I thought right: I wrote back. Then I posted my reply in precisely that same defunct box. As I did so, I found myself looking over my shoulder, into the woods behind me, I’m not sure for what.

I know. I understand if you think I’m mad. And I began to think I was myself, after that, especially when the weeks went by and another letter didn’t arrive, but then, after over a month, there it was on the doormat: same handwriting. I have it here, if you’d like to read it. And the next couple of letters.

… Yes. No. Yes. I’m not sure.

Yes. That’s him responding to my questions about who he is and what he does for a living. This bit where he’s talking about working on “dogsticks” and “dragshoes” is a reference to his job as a wheelwright. And that’s where it gets interesting. You know those nerds I hang out with from the Devonshire Architectural Group? You remember Jean? Well, I found out from her that back in the early 20s the flat that Horrible Roger rents used to be part of the workshop of a wheelright, a Mr A Wargrave. Ambrose. He died of TB in 1948.

I don’t know. Do I believe in ghosts? I’m not sure. Even now. But it’s been four years now and I’ve kind of rolled with it. I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s actually been really nice for me and has taken me back to when I was in my late teens and I got all those lovely letters from people all over Europe. As you know, my family have lived in Devon for centuries so there’s something really familiar and comfortable about the way Ambrose speaks, yet at the same time, I’m learning about a different culture, a totally foreign one really, with its own language. I’ve found out “jibber” means a stubborn horse, “snishums” means sneeze and “dumbledrone” means bumblebee. I don’t know what the old Devonshire is for mouth ulcer, though.

No, he wasn’t married. He told me he’s always been too devoted to his job and hasn’t had much time for romance. There was a time when things did get a little weird between us. He sent me a photo of himself in front of the headboard of an Oxford waggon, doing this kind of strong man pose, with his waistcoat on, but no shirt.

Yes, of course he had trousers on. But then things got a little weird. He asked me to send him some photos of myself in t-shirts, so he could see my elbows. It did seem odd, but I agreed, as he seemed ever so sweet, and I didn’t have a lot going on in my life at the time, so thought why not. But that was all a bit of an anomaly in our correspondence. It feels like a long time ago. Mostly things didn’t have any kind of sexual undertone at all.

No, I don’t have the photo. I got rid of it, because about a year after that was when I started seeing Cogan, and I was always a bit worried about him going through my stuff. I would never worry about that with you, though, and I’d have been very happy to show it to you, because it just seems funny now, and it was a while ago. Are you ok? You look upset. You’re not upset, are you?

Good. I’m glad. Anyway, as I said, I thought I’d be totally up front with you, but that stuff really was just one small odd period in the way we wrote to one another. Mostly it’s very mundane. He’ll tell me about the controversy over dished wheels, and how regional precept tended to determine matters, the strange way the Hereford waggon tended to be very deeply dished yet the Essex was only slightly so, even though it had to encounter some very nasty mud and ruts too. It’s quite boring a lot of the time, but sort of comforting too. I think he was – or is – very worried he’s part of a dying trade, what with the increase in motor vehicles. I tell him about my bike rides and he seems to like that. I think he imagined nobody would be riding bikes any more by now. Oh, and I did tell him about you last week.

He said he was happy for me but that he’d give you a good thumping if you ever did anything to wrong me.

No, only you. Even Sally and Dad don’t know. It’s been my little secret up until now. I hope that means something.

I would. If you are ok with that. He’s become a good friend.

I have thought of that. A lot of these old barns are being converted now. But maybe they will keep the postbox there. Whatever the case, Ambrose and I have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Yes, I’m looking forward to actually speaking to you about this properly too. I’m already so sick of this pain and it feels weird writing stuff like this down. But also I suppose it makes you my penpal too, in a way. Which is nice. And hopefully means you don’t feel left out.

Yes, you should. I’m sorry this has taken so long. Are you ok?

Are you sure?

Absolutely sure?

Good. I’m so relieved. I was up most of the night thinking about all this. Even though I think I knew in my heart of hearts that you would be chilled about it all.

Of course. Absolutely anything. Always.

About five nine, maybe? Your height. Maybe a tiny bit taller. It’s hard to tell from a photo. Also he was wearing very big shoes. I don’t think they even make them like that any more.

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