Found in Translation
He sat in the front, waiting for the teacher. Behind him, under the faded, dog-eared skeleton diagrams now endowed with bizarre genitalia and scribbled over with graffiti, other students were talking, laughing, throwing things around. He heard some boys discussing a fight that happened, how someone got stabbed. He felt uncomfortable. Many of these boys were so quick to anger, or talk about weapons, who owned a gun. He had seen too much killing, too much hurt, to be interested in those sorts of conversations.
At least now they didn’t laugh at his accent anymore, or call him rude names. A few students even greeted him. Some of the teachers still treated him as a fool when he didn’t understand their instructions. Mr Nicols always spoke extra loudly to him as if that would help him understand better.
He got out his books. He knew he was lucky to be here, to be out of the fear, the shooting, the walking. But sometimes when he looked at his homework in the tiny flat he shared with eight other refugees, the books and assignments seemed to be from some foreign planet. He certainly was treated like an alien. Him and Port Jackson – unwelcome blots on the landscape.
His thoughts were interrupted by Mr Rogers walking into the classroom, followed by a slim, pretty woman in a sleek black dress. ‘Hey, I like it,” shouted one boy, and the others wolf-whistled loudly. Sammy saw the woman blush and put his head down in embarrassment. “Quiet!” Mr Rogers shouted loudly, and the class subsided into interested murmurs. “This is Miss Dupoint. She has come to tell you about French classes.”
She can teach me anything!” shouted the same heckler. Mr Rogers glared at him. “Detention. Friday.” The boy slouched back, sullen. Miss Dupoint gave an apologetic laugh. Then she cleared her throat and the class quietened. “Who of you can speak French?” she asked. Sammy put his hand up. The class erupted in disbelief – “hey, Sammy, you can’t even speak English properly!”
“Bonjour, Monsieur.” Their calls subsided as Miss Dupoint greeted him politely in French, asked him where he came from. And when he answered, he almost heard the shocked silence. Did his classmates not realise he had a language that belonged to him? Miss Dupoint chatted to him a little, shyly. The others heard an exclusive conversation and the wolf-whistles started up again, quelled quickly by Mr Rogers. Miss Dupoint launched into her presentation in broken English, handed out some brochures and then left, smiling a goodbye to Sammy.
Later Nodumo came up to him. “Hey, you can score with that one,” he teased. ‘It sounds so cool when you speak French, it’s really romantic,’ said Chantal. Other kids also smiled at him, made a comment as they went out to break. It feels as if I’m suddenly visible, Sammy thought, as if Miss Dupoint waved a wand and they saw me for the first time.
Later it was English. “I need some oral marks” said Miss Brown. “Each of you is to stand up and introduce yourself to the class, and tell us something we don’t know about you, anything – anything LEGAL that is,” she said, in response to the giggles and shrieks amongst a group of students at the back.
Normally Sammy would have shrunk back in his chair, awkward with accent. He wouldn’t have known what to say, and would have had Miss Brown’s impatient prompting for his slow fumblings. But today was different. His back straightened as he put his hand up to go first. ‘Sammy,” said Miss Brown, surprised. “Well, miracles do happen. Okay, go for it.”
Sam stood up. “Not many of you know where I come from,” he said, “or why I’m here.” Everyone was looking at him, even those students who spent most of the lessons sprawled across their desks sleeping. He took a deep breath. “This is my story…”
She had not felt like going away but she had promised to show Paul Prague and he had been a friend through several London years. She had last seen the city with snow humped on the pavements, her first European winter. It was crowded with dark spires and statues edged with gold, which shone enticingly through the darkness; its river had untamed shores and wooden boats tied up, their striped awnings frozen. Now, when the airport’s minibus taxi dropped them off, the day was drizzly but warm and yellow leaves drifted from the trees.
Her guidebook had listed their apartment as a good budget bet in the oldest quarter. It had two bedrooms, she checked on that, and belonged to the new trend of arty B&Bs. They were early, it was still being cleaned, and they chatted to the male owner who was her generation, mid-40s. It was fun to meet someone who had also grown up in a repressive society, on a different continent, that had changed at about the same time hers had. She talked about Mandela’s release, and he described riotous East German cars pouring into the city, and Paul joined in with his memories of working as a Fleet Street sub-editor when the momentous news they had each lived through came in to the newsdesk.
Then they were being led through steep streets, and the owner unlocked an iron gate, with a key cut from the Middle Ages, and showed them their front door set in a courtyard. With a flourish he indicated the bedroom, flooded with cool light, an antique wrought iron bed, white bedding and luxurious pillows, tall, wood-framed windows against which drifted transparent curtains. What a pity she wasn’t here with a lover. She could hear a woman’s heels negotiating the cobbles outside and the boom of cathedral bells. ‘And the other room?’ she asked. It was small, shuttered. He gestured to its sofabed, saw her dismay. ‘But of course you won’t be needing that,’ he said. She felt a clash of confusion; could he be thinking that she and her friend of 73 were lovers just because they had sat on his sofa and talked about the liberation of Prague as if it was their own?
On the last day of the long weekend she saw that Abdulla Ibrahim, a world renowned Cape Town musician exiled under apartheid, was playing that night. They found the venue, a domed church with plaster monks and a Madonna with a child enfolded in her robes; the piano stood next to a marble altar which was covered with an embroidered cloth. Ibrahim bowed wordlessly, sat, his notes filled the air. She was carried to Cape Town on a summer evening, driving home to Rondebosch as the sun set into the Atlantic, seawater heaving in its orange trail, the darkening mountain crouched above the city for another night in its long history. She smelt the dusty wind as it flattened newspapers against fences, rattled palm trees along the Parade and whipped the sea into peaks of cream. In Salt River, the turquoise sky was suffused with pink, terraced houses dark against the mauve air, children squealing in the streets.
The notes faded and she realised her head was resting on Paul’s shoulder, and that it felt strangely natural; his hand had found hers and that felt natural, too. Some in the black poloneck-clad audience were staring. She heard the wheeze in his breathing and felt his heart beating inside his shirt; his skin was as soft as fine leather, his fingers alive with feeling, she felt the gold signet ring that had been his father’s. The piano notes started again, kelp stewing in the sea at Mouille Point and the smell of porridge wafting over Observatory on a winter morning thick with fog. His hand in hers tightened, she danced into the shelter of his heart.