The Art of Speaking Proper
by Sam Grieve
“Litchis, love,” corrects the woman. “You saying it wrong. It’s litchis.
The woman makes the first syllable sound like lie, not lee. She has hands the color of cooked lobsters, and the skin around her mouth is puckered into a thousand tiny wrinkles, an ancient desert landscape abraded by floods.
Laura nods, says nothing. She has never been confrontational–and she despises this about herself, her timidity—but her mind, her mind boils with newly found antagonism.
“Where you from then?” The woman picks through the crate of the prickled brown fruits, fills a brown paper bag.
“From here,” says Laura. “But we have lived in South Africa since I was born. Just moved back.”
“Ah, that’s it then.” The woman scrutinizes her. Faded eyes made paler by a smutch of periwinkle eyeshadow. “It ain’t your fault, dear,” she goes on, consoling, “that you don’t know how to speak proper. You been raised abroad.”
She turns away, places the bag in the silver lap of the scale. “‘Alf a pound, on the nose!” Her voice is thick with triumph.
Here lies a Queen of Costermongery. The words slip into Laura’s brain unbidden, little slithering vipers. They are accompanied by a pen and ink illustration too, an ornate headstone carved with fruits, vegetables.
“I can weigh everyfink with me hands,” says the woman. “Don’t need this fancy gadget, but it makes the punters happy.
I bet you can, thinks Laura, down to the last milligram. Her poetry voice, as she calls it, has receded—back is her normal thinking voice, weary and sarcastic. Not that they have milligrams here anyway. She has washed up on an archaic sceptered isle—where the world is measured in stones and pounds and bushels. But there is no time for pondering, for the red claw is stretching toward her, proffering its wares.
“Three quid, love. Bit dear, I know, but thems come all the way from Thailand. Never ‘ad them meself. Don’t trust that kind of foreign fruit.“
Laura is not listening. She is doing the currency conversion in her head, her guilt growing as the real cost of the fruit in the only money she understands becomes painfully evident.
Three quid. It sounds like nothing. It’s a king’s ransom.
Mum’s going to kill her.
In three days she will be starting at her new school. Lady Margaret’s. The thought fills her with terror. She had been for an interview soon after they arrived—a month ago now—her mother bustling in a too-tight jacket, shoulder pads askew, her father’s sunburned face turning even ruddier under the obsidian stare of the headmistress. Logic tells Laura they must have spent at least an hour in the place, but her memory seems to have recorded only specific impressions. An ugly sixties building, illuminated with long buzzing strips of fluorescent light, melded on to a Gothic Victorian mansion. An ingrained odor of shepherd’s pie, laboratory chemicals, beeswax polish. A rhododendron with curled brown leaves dripping in the rain. The overwhelming silence. She and the headmistress had talked about books, and when her mother had rolled her eyes and said with a mixture of pride and thespian despair, “you just can’t drag her away from them,” Laura saw the headmistress wince—a movement so slight, she might have been inhaling. But she seemed to like Laura, nonetheless, for at the end of their talk, she extended her long hand and said, “Well, Laura. I think you will do. We would be delighted to have you join us.”
A week later Laura and her mother drove up to Reading. It was another sunless morning—it looked as though someone had kicked a pot of gray paint across the sky. Laura was the navigator; the unwieldy map her father had entrusted her with lay across her knees, and she traced the route with her finger. The journey, estimated by her father over breakfast to be three quarters of an hour, had taken far longer. There were so many cars and vans and lorries and roundabouts and mopeds and road works that her mother had grown increasingly flustered and petulant. Several times they circled a roundabout twice, once three times, due to her being in the wrong lane and Laura, car sick from the map reading, had lacked the requisite energy to soothe her. It was therefore with some relief that they finally stepped out of the car into a dim and filthy multistory car park in the center of town.
They found a lift to the department store. The lift stank of urine. Laura held her breath. On the back of the scuffed steel door, someone had scrawled, “Go Home, Pakis,” in barely legible writing, and Laura stared at the words as they descended. She was an obsessive reader (about this her mother was correct) but “Pakis” was not a word she had come across before. Was it someone’s name? Maybe Pakis was lost and somebody had left him this message telling him what to do. It was quite clever, she thought, and she was about to mention this when the door slid open like a magician’s reveal, and they walked through a linoleum-floored ante-chamber into the shop.
She felt her mother stiffen but when she looked over, instead of the usual tight jaw, she saw joy. It was of a low wattage variety—for her mother was greatly out of practice—but it was joy nonetheless. Her mother extended a tremulous hand. “Laura, look!”
Laura’s mother had never been a happy woman. Not since Laura has known her, at any rate. According to Arthur, Laura’s father, a mantle of discontent had descended upon his wife the moment they had stepped off the plane in Cape Town sixteen years earlier. Vickie had not wanted to leave England, but Arthur, who had always longed to travel, and could appreciate the sound financial sense in the move, had been resolute. Vickie had responded with an iron determination of her own. If she were to be dragged from her home, she would be absolutely committed to her misery. Nothing in South Africa would please her. The country was too hot. The wind blew. She did not like the shops. The locals were parochial. They knew nothing of culture (by which, Laura came to understand as she grew older, she meant BBC programming, for her mother showed no interest whatsoever in literature or theater or music). And she was deeply and visibly uncomfortable with anyone of color. All of Laura’s friends’ mothers had help in their homes but not Vickie. She cleaned with a demented ferocity, the smell of bleach stinging Laura’s eyes each time she stepped into the kitchen after school.
“Remember, Laura,” her mother would remind her during her childhood, “that you are English.” Her tone was so reverential that anyone listening might have assumed that Laura was the scion of some royal house in exile. But Laura—herself—knew nothing of Britain, for they did not have the money to travel overseas. And yet she was not South African either. In her childish mind, her birthright was something superior to those of her friends—an orderly kingdom of castles and red buses and cheerful bobbies and Wimbledon and strawberries and Enid Blyton—a land of storybook marvels over the sea.
She turned her attention back the shop. It looked like a grand country house. Carved ceilings, decorated here and there with antique-looking globes, cast a diffused light over the mahogany and glass showcases. A green carpet, worn bare in places, covered the floor, and as they traversed it, Laura felt the creaking of floorboards beneath her tread. The shop smelled of furniture polish, lilies—a large bouquet in a huge silver bowl stood near the lift—and leather shoes and powdery, old lady perfume.
Over to the left, rolls of fabric, a good foot taller than both she and her mother, were leant up against a wall, and as they approached, a salesman heaved a roll onto the counter, measured out a certain width of the fabric, and then with enormous silver scissors snipped his way through it. Laura stood and watched him for a few moments, delighting in his efficient movements, the pleasing rasp of the sheared weave.
Laura started. Her mother had flagged down a salesgirl. The girl was holding a clipboard. She looked rather annoyed.
“So sorry to trouble you,” Vickie sunk into a variant of a genuflection that caused Laura’s stomach to lurch in shame, “but we are looking for School Uniforms. My daughter is starting at Lady Margaret’s.”
The salesgirl was very pretty. Her nostrils were chiseled and so white they might have been sculpted of marble. She wore pearls around her neck and black penny loafers.
“But of course, Madame.” Her voice, husky and affected, emerged miraculously from an almost-closed mouth. “School Uniforms is located at the far end of the shop.” She then proceeded to list off on her fingers all the places they had to pass through to reach it. Hosiery, haberdashery, lingerie, passmenterie.
“Go directly through all those departments, and you will be right there, quick as a wink. Got that? All right, good. Well done, you! Now look, awfully sorry, but I have meeting to get to, but do ask one of my colleagues if you need any more assistance. They would be delighted to help.”
Laura’s mother nodded, dumbfounded.
They sound like an archipelago of islands in the Odyssey, thought Laura to herself.
Through Laura’s childhood, Vickie had marinated in her dissatisfaction. Much later, after she had moved out of her parents’ home, Laura came to understand how enveloping this misery had been; everything had been stained with it: weekends, holidays, family dinners, Christmas. Laura had loved her mother nonetheless; it never occurred to her to do otherwise, for she was the one thing that surpassed her mother’s expectations, brought her delight. And, although Vickie blamed Arthur for ruining her life and depositing her in this antipodean hellhole, she clung to him too. Her mind was too unmalleable to consider a separation, a unique path of her own. And thus, the Bakers were essentially a united family, but a family for whom the siren song of their lives was always flat, melancholic. And for Laura and Arthur, any experience of true joy came to be, over time, by necessity separate from Vickie.
The shop was a maze of big rooms, and small rooms, and smaller rooms, some with one or two doors, others with three, some blind alleys. They navigated their way through a department that sold hats of all colors, coral and turquoise and emerald and navy, wide-brimmed, high-crowned, with dyed feathers, and silk bows and gauze and fake flowers. A woman in a navy skirt stood in front of free-standing mirror, a hat bigger than a life buoy perched on her head and declared in ringing tones, “Dear me, no!” and “Oh, this one is rather nice,” and “I say, may possibly try on the cheeky aquamarine fascinator at the back?”
Vickie’s face grew brighter and brighter with wonder. She gripped Laura’s hand and led her deeper into the maze, her head swiveling like a Cindy doll’s on her thin neck. “Look, Laura,” she cried, “look at all the scarves!” and like a person parched and newly emerged from a desert, she trailed her fingers across their shimmering surfaces. They passed lingerie, where geriatric nightgowns hung beside lace teddies and open drawers revealed peach-colored underwear, and then through a bewildering wonderland of silk fringes and jars of buttons and multicolored cords. Then into leather goods, where handbags and lizard purses and pigskin agendas lay in dimly lit cases as though they were rare animals from forested habitations. They passed other customers, not many, men in tweed jackets and women all ubiquitous in their long skirts with wide belts and big buckles resting on their bellies. Occasionally, Laura heard them speak, caught them asking for things that were as mysterious as the store itself, and without really knowing what she was doing she caught these phrases and their incumbent grammar and locked them away.
“My wife would like a bed jacket.”
“Do you sell ironmongery?”
“Where might one find galoshes?”
And then, at last, when it seemed impossible that the shop might extend further, they reached School Uniforms.
Three days after Laura’s fourteenth birthday, her childhood came to an abrupt end. That evening her father returned home from work, his face drawn. They ate dinner in the dining room as they always did, and as Laura was taking her last bite, her father announced that he was losing his job. The company was pulling out of South Africa. Something to do with sanctions. He had to lay off one hundred people. In the light of the brass chandelier with its twelve small green lampshades, her mother’s face grew gargoylish with happiness.
“Well, they deserve it,” she said.
“Do they?” asked her father.
Laura barely heard them; she was frozen in her chair. Outside, the shadow of the mountain was lengthening, a collared dove was cooing on the lawn. The idea of returning to England had not even been mentioned, but Laura suddenly understood through to her bones that this was where they were headed. And faced with this new reality, she felt the bond between herself and her mother unravel, as though their mooring ropes had come untied, and she, Laura, was drifting off into the dark, into the unknown.
School Uniforms: the sign on the wall.
“At last,” said Vickie. Her voice was too cheerful. It grated on Laura’s nerves.
The light was different here, fluorescent, and the genteel carpeting had given way to an ugly tile. A sales assistant not much older than Laura herself was propped up against the shabby counter. Laura’s mother went over to her and mentioned the name of the new school. The girl located a dog-eared file and then began to gather the items on the list she found within it. Laura undressed in a tiny dressing room. There was no door, just a curtain coming loose on its rings and to Laura’s annoyance the girl kept pulling the curtain aside and shoving new items inside regardless of Laura’s state of undress.
“Here’s anovver skirt,” she declared, ripping back the curtain, and “I fink that’s the smallest jumper we got.” Her accent was almost unintelligible. It took all Laura’s concentration to decipher what she was saying.
Finally, it was over. Laura emerged. Her mother, whom she had banished from the cubicle from the onset, was sitting on a foldable chair. She burst into applause. “Oh, my sweets!” she cried. “Look at yourself! Aren’t you lovely?!”
Laura surveyed herself in the mirror. She was wearing a knee-length navy nylon skirt, which was already beginning to chafe the skin on her thighs. And blue knee socks, black penny-loafers, a white shirt with a striped blue and white tie, and a shapeless jersey with the school crest embroidered above her left breast. And suddenly, with a ferocity of wave crashing over her, she felt a hankering for her old uniform—that soft cotton dress in its gingham check with the white collar and short sleeves—and her vision swam.
They had arrived in England in late August. It was supposed to be summertime, but a cold front had blown down from the north. Laura had never felt cold like this—a sort of swamp chill that invaded her bones, the cold of a country damp for centuries. First stop was two weeks with Laura’s aunt, while Arthur hunted for a rental house. Auntie Jillie’s house was tiny, a doll’s house adhered to twenty other stuccoed doll’s houses. One bathroom for seven people. They barbecued in the rain, while Laura’s cousins, three boys, kicked a ball against the wooden fence at the back of the house. At sunset, clouds of midges descended over their heads. The meat was burned and fatty. Her aunt and uncle moaned about everything. The government. The weather. The cost of petrol. The new housing development down the road. By 9 p.m. Laura would escape to bed with Jane Austen, but it was impossible to concentrate as the couple next door spent each night screaming, “Fu’ you!” at each other through the wall.
Her mother, who had seemed a bit dazed since arriving, took her to Windsor Castle. The castle was heaving with tourists, and the tickets remarkably expensive, so they wandered along the lanes that lay beneath the huge gray walls. Gray slippery cobbles, and crooked little houses, and shops selling teapots made to look like crooked little houses. And chocolate boxes showing the same crooked houses and the castle, as though the idea of everything had to be constantly repeated to remind people of what they were supposed to admire. And so many people! Laura had never seen such crowds, all jostling along the pavements or standing in bedraggled clumps beneath available awnings whenever the rain started. They all wore navy and black and gray, while she stood out in pink shorts and sandals and a yellow poplin T-shirt and a zip-up turquoise windbreaker. Everyone kept staring at her as though she were mad. She was mad, she decided, for her legs were blue with cold. For lunch her mother took her to a pub on the river, where they ate a strange pie full of potatoes. Everyone smoked, and in one corner a man kept shoving money into slot machine that chirped and buzzed with forced jollity. Every single person they talked to corrected her pronunciation. She watched a swan, the most beautiful thing she had seen all day, glide through the pouring rain as though it were being steered by angels.
Why did they correct her when they all spoke so differently themselves?
“Been somewhere nice on holiday then?” the salesgirl asked.
Laura jumped, her mind had been drifting. “Sorry?”
“You got a really good tan,” the girl said.
“We have just returned from South Africa,” her mother answered for her. “We were living out there but we are back now.”
“Glad, ain’t you?” said the salesgirl. Up this close Laura could see that her nose, fleshy and tuber-like was riddled with the black specks of blackheads. “I can see it in your face. Couldn’t imagine living anywhere but in England myself. All those diseases in Africa. And the flies.”
Her mother nodded, the hardship of the previous fifteen years evident in the sutured lines of her mouth, her suspicious eyes. The girl rung up the clothes, folded them clumsily into a big plastic bag. Her mother wrote out a check. Her hands, Laura noticed, shook.
Usually in Cape Town when they went to Cavendish they would go out for a pot of tea and cake, but evidently things were different here. There was to be no more ogling of the wares; without speaking her mother marched back to the car. Laura held her breath in the lift, reread Pakis’s message several times. They drove out into the dismal day, several impatient drivers hooting at her mother when she dithered about a turn. Her mother’s lips grew whiter and whiter.
“Don’t you lose anything now,” Vickie finally said as they parked in the close outside their new house. “Your father is not going to believe what I just had to pay for all this.”
Laura stands on the pavement and waits for her mother to come out of the butcher’s, the bag of litchis against her heart. The desire to take one out, crack the skin with her teeth, and taste the familiar rush of the juice, swamps her—and for a magical moment, she is back there with her friends, lying on her towel on Muizenberg Beach, the sun hot on her back, a litchi pit slipping smoothly around in her mouth. But the illusion only lasts a second or two. She shivers. The weather has turned again, a sort of fog has come up that is neither rain nor mist. She imagines it pouring out of rabbit holes, spewing from the wet ground itself. She has no words for it. She has no words for here. She is even unsure as to whether eating on the street corner is acceptable. Inside the butcher’s, her mother is caught in glare of blue light. She is talking excitedly with the butcher’s assistant, pointing out cuts of meat, the blackish gleaming discs of liver, a skinned rabbit, its ligaments the violet of old bruises, and in that moment she no longer looks like Laura’s mother, she looks like a foreigner. She could be anyone at all.
About the Author
Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town, and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut. She graduated from Brown University, and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller and an antiquarian book-dealer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous magazines, including A cappella Zoo, Daily Science Fiction, PANK, and Southern Indiana Review. Stories of hers have been recognized as Notable in The Best of American Nonrequired Reading 2014 and she won the Broad River Review 2015 Rash Award for Fiction.