Susanna Gendall

Susanna Gendall grew up in Wellington and is a writer / editor / translator. Her short fiction has been published in various journals including JAAM, Sport and takahē.

With writing, it’s so exciting not knowing where you’re going to end up.


Speaking English

I made you up one afternoon. I guess I had nothing better to do. That’s what my kids always did when they had nothing to do — made someone up and played with them. It was raining and I pulled my hood up and listened to the rain falling on the cotton roof above me as I walked to pick the kids up from school. If I closed my eyes I was in a tent. Even if I opened them. The sound of the rain was loud enough to make the parked cars and the stale dog shit and the fresh graffiti disappear.

I got to school too early.

‘Fuck,’ I said.

No one cared. Everyone spoke another language. They all stood under their umbrellas, unperturbed by my self-expression, staring at the door, willing it to open.

I hated being early. I was trying to work out what had gone wrong. I had left at 4.28 like I always did, which usually made me arrive at 4.34, just after the first influx of the more desperate strain of parents, giving a free passage through the door without the mild bustling that the first group, blinded by love for their children, were prone to. I thought it might have been the school’s fault — a problem with their clocks — although this was a weak hypothesis considering the military approach the French had to the end of the school day. They gave you a ten-minute window in which you could pick up your children. Too early and you had to stand in the rain and talk about the weather. Too late and your children became the property of the French state — only for another two hours — at which point they gave you another ten-minute window. I’m not sure what happened if you missed that one.

I hung back and looked around at the flowers as the first wave shuffled through. You walked around the corner then, slowing when you saw the traffic. I’d seen you before, ten times, fifty times, a hundred times. I’d heard you speaking English. But you were very visible that day. Maybe the rain brought you out. There was a time at the beginning when I didn’t see you at all.

You were wearing those unlaced boots you always wore, and sunglasses instead of a coat. There were drops of rain on your t-shirt, making it turn the colour of wet concrete. You looked through me for a second, as you got closer to the door. I was used to people looking at me this way — I was a mother, a condition that can make you see-through. Or maybe I was more than see-through. Maybe I was as invisible to you as you had once been to me. Maybe I wasn’t there at all.

‘Do you know what’s wrong with the clocks?’ I asked the man I lived with later in the kitchen. I was grating carrots. If I did it fast enough, it made a static sound like a broken radio.

‘What?’ said the man I lived with. ‘What socks?’

‘Clocks. What’s wrong with the clocks.’ I paused the grating for his benefit. He could never hear what I was saying. He looked like he was trying to read my lips, which weren’t moving at all.

‘Oh, the clocks! There was a power cut — but I put them back — well, I made a rough estimation. Why? Were you late for school?’

‘Not late, no.’

The sound of the broken radio started up again.

After I made you up, I tried to unmake you. It wasn’t practical. There were all these children around. It was a silly idea. You were too tall, anyway. I spent all afternoon trying to undo you as I worked on my translation, deleting words and replacing them with others in my study, which had begun to resemble a doll’s house with all the small chairs and little tea-cups and miniature coloured pencils that the children transported in every day. But I saw, when I got to school, that it was too late. You had a heart and a brain of your own now, and there was a cord that attached us, even if it was invisible.

I started seeing you over and over again. We liked the park. It was practical with the children. You sat on your bench and I sat on mine. You smoked the occasional cigarette and didn’t mind when your son tried to convert your back into a slide. I listened for someone calling out to you so I could give you a name. Once I heard your daughter call you Papa. You liked the bench by the seesaw that didn’t have sycamore branches hanging down over it. At first I thought this was some leaning towards vitamin D, but after further analysis, I realised it was the only bench on which the pigeons, concealed in the trees, didn’t sporadically shit on. I stayed where I was. I hadn’t been hit so far.

There were other times — the time in the supermarket when you were holding a bag of oranges and a baguette and I was holding a pot of crème fraîche and some leeks. We stood in different queues looking at different things. We were both holding two items. You had a fruit and I had a vegetable. You had two kids and I had three. You lived with a woman and I lived with a man.

There was the time we walked past each other on the street. I was late after the metro got stuck and you were already on your way to the park. We were both wearing t-shirts. If you hadn’t moved your arm a little as I passed, our forearms would have touched.

I liked the café on the corner. Sometimes I went to work there when I grew tired of being an overgrown doll. You could sit outside in the sun or inside and listen to the French rap the waitress liked. It was good to type to.

That day I ordered a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. I must have seen someone do it somewhere — probably one of my kids. When the waitress brought it over, I poured the rest of my coffee into the floral glass bowl and stirred it up until it resembled mud.

The toilets had lights that lit up like magic when you walked in and a tap that turned on by itself and soap that drizzled down when you put your hand under it. The world of hygiene was a magical place. The left-hand wall was the texture of a blackboard and there was a bowl of different coloured chalk for customers to write nice things about the café. Most people conformed to this approach, but there were messages of love and hate slipped in between them. I took a piece of yellow chalk and looked for a space.

I must have grown bored of being invisible because I put on some red lipstick one day at 4.23. Russian Red it was called. I found it in the bottom of the bathroom cabinet underneath the bottles of paracetamol and boxes of worm pills. The children noticed it. They were impressed. They made funny faces at me like I might be someone else’s mother and touched my lips to see if I really existed.

‘Why have you got lipstick on? Have you been to a party? Are you going to a party?’ they asked, suspicious of the past and the future.

‘We’re going to the park.’

I couldn’t see you anywhere and it was my only chance.

‘It’s raining,’ they complained.

‘It’s the spring,’ I told them, but they were unconvinced. I dragged them to the park anyway and made them get their bottoms wet on the bench, and fed them chocolate biscuits to keep them there. I kept my eye on the bench by the seesaw. An old lady with one of those outdoor shower-caps came and sat on it at some point. She saw me. She looked right at me and said bonjour.

At six o’clock on Saturday I told my children I didn’t want to play anymore.

‘Don’t be silly, darling, you’re just tired. Come on, it’s time for your rest,’ they said and tucked me up in a pink blanket and made me drink water and mint leaves out of a shrunken cup. I lay down and shut my eyes while they fussed around me in the American accents they perceived as being the language of adults.

‘Can I get up now? I feel much better.’

‘Not quite yet, darling, not quite yet.’ The youngest one stroked my forehead with her tiny hand.

‘OK, guys,’ I said in a voice that was audibly out of character. ‘I’ve got to go shopping, there’s nothing for dinner.’

They tried to hang on a bit longer, but their voices slipped away from them until they sounded like New Zealand children fighting over a tea set. I snuck out of the room while they tried to find the missing milk jug. It was true that I had to go shopping, although the part about there being nothing for dinner was a lie. The truth was that I’d seen you before in the supermarket just after six.

I noticed we’d found other ways of communicating. I saw you wearing that peach-coloured t-shirt the same day I was wearing one. Mine may have had buttons down the front and a slightly pinker shade, but I understood. I saw you reading a book in the park the day after I was seen reading a book in the park. Although I know these accusations sound childish, it felt like the other varieties of communication — the ‘Have you got a light?’ and, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ and, ‘Have you read Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human?’ were not available to us. We had to find other ways. I even noticed what you did to that Englishman I’d seen you talking to, how when I saw him in the bakery, my cheeks grew hot because he was connected to you.

At the supermarket, I took a basket and tried to find something to put in it. I couldn’t think of a single thing we needed. Three aisles later I threw in a pack of chocolate florentines and a bag of tamari almonds that were on special. At the check-out, I chose a few packs of the chewing gum that had been placed there expressly for people like me. I think I even saw the checkout operator smiling with some kind of professional satisfaction at my predictable impulse.

I did such a good job of making you up that even the man I lived with began to believe in you. When I got back from the supermarket, emptying the bag of unnecessary items onto the kitchen table, he picked up a packet of chewing gum and examined the tiny letters that described the ingredients.

‘Where have you been?’ he said, looking straight at me with the same kind of feelings he had for the small print.

‘At the supermarket.’

We looked at the noises coming from the ceiling where the feet of our children thudded threateningly above us — it was some new game with jumping and running and a chair and the bed. Our house was old and it didn’t seem unrealistic to imagine the ceiling giving way under the weight of their feet. I opened the bag of tamari almonds and held it out to him. He stood there a few seconds longer, looking me over for traces of infidelity, trying to find the holes hidden in my response, but the maths won out in the end — he was a great mathematician, the man I lived with — there were all these unopened packages on the table and some change. I’d even kept the receipt.

One night I got home and found the man I lived with sitting in bed reading a book as fat as the bible. I’d been drinking vodka, which always woke me up, and I hadn’t noticed the night turning into the morning. I sat down next to him and finished the piece of toast I always ate when I got home drunk. I leant over, dropping crumbs on the duvet, to read the cover.

‘How’s economic power in the time of the French revolution?’

‘You smell like sex,’ he said, brushing the crumbs away.

I laughed. I felt sorry for him, finding all these bits of evidence that turned to dust in his hands. He didn’t know how to prosecute me when I had done nothing wrong. The proof of my offense was buried deep somewhere he couldn’t access, the route to the treasure marked out on a map that I didn’t even have.

The school holidays went on in their bleak, blue way without you. With the children around all day looking at me, I began to resemble their inventions of me — a creator of cakes and ideas of what to do this morning. I lay in bed in the evenings with the windows wide open, trying to salvage the pieces that were left of myself, listening to the noises coming out of other open windows, other lives moving in and out with the breeze. I made up promises of how I would talk to you, how our voices would be like ink and make us visible to one another and to the world. I could already hear the intimacy of English — a language that only we spoke, that no one else would understand.

When I couldn’t think of anything else to do with the kids, we’d walk down to the café on the corner and I’d let them empty packets of sugar into their hot chocolates and drink them while I read the first sentences of articles in the newspaper.

There was always one who needed to go to the toilet. My blackboard greeting remained unanswered. The O had been partly rubbed out by someone’s elbow so that it looked more like a place you go after you die than a greeting. Then one day the board was a beautiful black, wiped clean of the compliments and quotes and those love hearts that join two names together. I stood there and contemplated this vast, black sky, listening to the urine trickle out of one of my children’s bladders. The kids were happy — there was so much more room to draw now.

I didn’t know what to wear the first day back at school. I kept checking out the window to see if the weather had changed. But the blue that begun on one edge of the sky stretched all the way across to the other, as clear as that blackboard. The children wanted to know why my leg was shaking. I told them it was because of a nerve in my foot and showed them how I could make it stop by moving my leg into another position. I couldn’t tell them that I was nervous because this was the day that I was going to speak English to you.

There was time to kill between nine and 4.34 so after I dropped the kids off, I played a game with the article I was translating where for every sentence I got through I was entitled to one free activity — eating an apple or going to the toilet or checking the weather. It was like holding my breath and then coming up for air. The longer sentences were especially gruelling. And French people loved long sentences.

There was nothing abnormal in the fact that I didn’t see you outside the school gate. We often missed each other at this stage with all the walking in and coming out, and I tried to concentrate on what my children were saying about their first day back: who had fallen over, what someone’s friend said, what the new teacher’s name was. Even as I sat at the park looking at people’s bodies for yours hidden inside them, trying to make up time, you were still walking, a child in each hand, at any moment about to push open the park gate and claim your bench. It wasn’t until a mother came up to me and asked me if I had the time that I had to pull my cell phone out of my bag and tell her it was 5.45. She kept prattling on about something — a dance class and could I drop the girls off on Mondays. I tried to nod in the right places, but her face grew remote like faces grow towards people who have no sense of timing. It was a strange sensation, losing something that I’d never had — some kind of overdraft that I would never be able to pay back. The woman finally backed off, disappointed with my manners and my French.