Words with more to say
by Mary Paterson
‘As soon as they hear my voice,’ says my mother, ‘they know they will have to listen.’ She means her ringing RP accent, sharp enough to cut glass, rich as a venison stew, designed and manufactured to make other people follow orders.
My son comes home from nursery with a glottal stop in the middle of ‘water.’ ‘war-TER’ I shout at him emphatically, and I pretend that it’s so he can learn to spell, but really it’s because I don’t want him to travel with a baggage label strangling his vocal cords.
‘You could tell she was foreign,’ says my mother, ‘but she wrote in perfect English.’ She’s talking about her own mother’s voice: suspicious, Jewish, hidden.
‘When you’re drunk,’ says a friend at university, ‘you sound like a comedy cockney.’ She means my attempts to flatten my vowels, drop my t’s, divest my voice of its closed rooms, its stains of venison.
Words are porous things. Sometimes they have a hole in the middle, and I will fall right through it, whatever you say to stop me.
‘What is what’s what?’ says my mother-in-law, her language now a disintegrated tongue, her words ravaged by brain disease and the boredom of days spent yawning in front of the television.
On the day of the US election, when a man who trumpets post-truth politics has become the so-called leader of the so-called Free World, I hold my mother-in-law’s hand, as fragile as a sparrow’s wing, while she cries. Her husband was spirited away in an ambulance in the hours before dawn, when we still thought the post-truth was not coming.
‘He,’ I say, pointing at rolling news coverage of a man trussed up in a suit and a wig like a circus animal, ‘thinks he’s President of the United States.’ We laugh. We laugh and laugh and laugh. We laugh until she cries, and then I repeat the trick.