I pronounce the words as I scrub toilet bowls. The clerks are on their way back home. The lamps on the desks are off, but still warm. The sweat on the keypads drying. The trains murmur on a dark blue horizon.
I practice the diphthongs, the aʊ’s, the əʊ’s. Repeat them, rhyme them. I reuse the words I’ve mispronounced –wrong vowels, lost syllables, past simple instead of continuous.
Today’s word is colonel, a noun derived from French.
You like this word. The medals hanging on your grandfather’s uniform, the awards framed above his desk.
It’s the inaudible n that betrays me.
You breathe it in my face, puckering your lips, saying: ‘Repeat after me’: /ˈkɜːn(ə)l/, /ˈkɜːn(ə)l/
My mind focused on the ghostly consonant.
Sometimes I search for new words during my break, I open the kitchen cupboards, look in the dust-bins. I find a phrase on the box from your chocolates– crunchy caramel, another, onthe plastic wrapper from a sandwich – chutney cheese. The latter feels strange on my vocal cords.
Broader vocabulary might help me find a better position soon, a promotion, or a pay rise. There are some vacancies coming up, I heard you say to one of your colleagues.
‘I’m supervising the cleaning staff,’ you told me during my induction training. ‘I keep it running, make sure everything is up to high standards. We’re one of the most successful law firm in the City.’
‘Yes, of course, I understand.’ I quote a phrase I learnt from the English for Beginners,while I was on the coach from Kyiv to London.
‘You’ll be cleaning the toilets and bathrooms on all of the floors. Make sure you polish everything twice. It all has to look immaculate.’ You place a strong accent on the second syllable mac.
‘Absolutely,’ I recite again, absorbing new words, observing how you move your lips.
‘I don’t think there is anyone from Ukraine here, the rest of staff are Romanian and Hungarian. But I’m sure you’ll get along. It’s a similar culture and language, right?’ You lift your left eyebrow.
Immaculate rings in my ears.
You inspect the bathrooms before my shift ends, that the mirrors are polished, basins are clean, air fresheners refilled. You swipe the tip of your finger along the tiles, examine it for grease and dust, then nod and pat me on my back saying ‘You’ve done a good job. But clean them again, just to be sure.’
I scrub the sinks once more, rub the taps, mop the floor, and repeat the words aloud. Today’s word is a singular noun: two. It made me pretend I had something in my eye. My minus two pounds. A two, taken away from my hourly pay, cut off due to an administrative error. It’s too late to change it on the payroll. But we’ll review it, you said. Sort it out for me – ‘in three months.’
I slip up, often when I haven’t slept well. Sometimes it’s a letter, a syllable; sometimes the tense, if it’s a bad day.
You shake your head when you hear it. ‘Come here, my dear.’ Your index finger waves in front of my nose. ‘Look at the shape of my lips and repeat.’ You pronounce the words loudly but slowly; your maroon, glossy lips widen and narrow. Citrus vowels hit my face. ‘You’d better learn the correct pronunciation if you’d like to live in the UK. It’s for your own good.’ Then you ramble on about your weekend plans, a trip to your sister’s mansion near Hampton Court, and to Ascot, to see the horse races. The flow of alien words sweeps over me, thoroughbred, broodmare, Burlington Bertie.
I’m hoping for a promotion; it’s been over twelve months. There is an opening on the reception. A nicer uniform: white collar; long, black skirt. No rubber gloves, plastic aprons. No rough scourers; a dust cloth instead. But the k slips in encouraged when I’m telling you about my hopes and ambitions during our interview. You tap the tip of your pen on your lip hearing the cc I exhale. A strange sound sneaks between n and o – missing the k I’m trying to foster, adopt.
Tap, tap on your lip.
‘Your accent is not yet there to greet the clients. But I can promote you.’ You nod, smirk. ‘To cleaning the kitchens.’
My jaw tightens, the pressure on my molars grows. I clench my fists under table, my fingernails make crescent dents in my palms.
You call for me after my shift, when I’m taking off my uniform, and ask me to do one last thing, empty the dustbins, then you ask for a cup of tea.
I drag waist-high sacks to the courtyard, throw them into blue bins, resist the temptation to smoke a cigarette. In the kitchen, I drown a tea bag in a bath of water and milk. Beige liquid wobbles in Queens china as I carry it to your desk.
You take the cup from my hands, sip the steaming drink. ‘Thank you, my dear. That looks lovely.’ You take another sip. ‘But next time pour a bit more milk. Now, off you go!’ You pat me on my arm. ‘Could you re-polish the mirrors first thing tomorrow? You’ve left a smudge.’
My throat tightens, my mouth open. ‘I have alr..e..y done ..em twice..,’ my tongue twists, skipping the d’s, the t’s. The consonants shake. I fall into a phonetic gunk.
Body language saves me one more time. I wave goodbye to you as I leave, my lips sealed.
On the way to the tube station, I whisper the words pretentious and posh. Unvoiced fricatives howl like the blowing wind.
Underground, on the platform, standing near the yellow line, I recall the last word I misspelt: bleach. I wrote it on my note asking you to order more cleaning products. I missed out an l. ‘That’s spelt wrong. It’s not the seacoast. It’s not BEACH, but BLEACH!’ you wrote under my words, and stuck the note to my locker door, near the communal lounge.
I rush home from the station. Not because I’m tired or hungry, but because you are there.
I unlock the drawer and take you out. Place you flat on the top of my desk which I like to keep tidy. You taught me that – ‘Tidy desk, tidy mind.’
I don’t have a lot of things, I had one suitcase on me when leaving Ukraine. A couple of red ink pens and a few reams of paper lie in the corner of my desk. An electric kettle stands on the carpet, near my bed. An English dictionary on the shelf, open on the letter h. The last word I learnt from it was a transitive verb: to hex.
The rest of my belongings, my shoes, jumpers, in cardboard boxes, piled up under the wall. But you, have a special place: in the second drawer of my desk.
You have small hands, fluffy hair and a lip curled down, as if somebody after a stroke. That wasn’t deliberate. I tried my best. Mapped the design with white chalk first, then cut four semicircles. Followed the instructions to the letter. Was precise. I stuffed the cotton pads inside, stitched the edges together in a neat line, then glued two blue buttons on your face.
I didn’t have wool, nor silk. The tea towels I used were a mix of cotton and polyester. Forgive me for leaving behind your mansions in Oxford, the OBE of your father’s, the names of African villages conquered by your relatives.
I stick in the first needle in your lower lip, slowly, so it doesn’t hurt much. It goes in smoothly. No resistance. I wouldn’t want to cause any pain. That’s very important.
I hold you in my palm and coil my fingers around your neck. I press on your throat, squeeze your larynx, block your vocal chords, restrict your airways. There is no sound. I lift you towards my lips and whisper the word fight into your ear.
You don’t talk back to me, you don’t fight back. You don’t say a word. With a punctured lip it would hurt you to speak. You look small and fragile. Your legs slightly beneath you, your hands outstretched, as if in surrender.
While you lie on your back I sip black tea, and bite on the chutney-cheese sandwich, left over from Monday’s lunch for the clients. The tension in my jaw eases. My larynx and tongue relax.
I stick in the second needle but skip your chest today: the centre, that’s pumping out all the vowels, the accents. I leave that for later. For when I’m interviewed for the newspapers, answer questions from journalists. When I can rhyme to every vowel, switch simple clauses for compound structures. For when the diphthongs roll off my tongue in a fluent Received Pronunciation.
For that special day.
About The Author
Lina Carr is a fiction writer living and working in London who writes short stories and flash fiction. Her work has been selected for publication and will appear in Clover & White Literary Magazine. She likes swimming and is addicted to green tea. You can follow her on Twitter @LinaCarr_Writer
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