Learning the Language – a short story by Elizabeth Hawksley

I’ve always thought of my parents as lost souls. My mother, age about two, was brought to a British refugee camp in Burma at the end of the war. My father was a year or so older when he was found by American soldiers wandering alone in the ruins of a burnt-out village in Eastern Europe in 1945. Neither of them had names or nationalities; they were just part of the human debris of the war. All that was known was that he was probably Polish and that she might be half-Burmese.

The Author

It was not surprising that they both grew up to be nomads; part of the 1960s flower-power generation. It was as if to be nameless and homeless was a natural condition to both of them, in spite of the English orphanage she’d grown up in, and the Pestalozzi orphanage in Switzerland he’d been taken to. They met in Kashmir, somewhere on the hippy trail, and I, Anna, was born a year or so later, at the side of the road, somewhere between Florence and Rome.

I remember my childhood as a kaleidoscope of confusing and conflicting images. I never had a settled home; we moved about mainly between England, India and Italy. Sometimes my father would ‘split’ for a while and sometimes it was my mother who went. I think they were both fond of me. If one of them drifted off, sooner or later they drifted back and, somehow, between them, I grew up. When I was fourteen, my father died of a drugs overdose and, a year or so later in London, my mother died of sepsis after a botched abortion.

Suddenly, I became visible to the Social Services. It was a shock; I could see that they fully expected me to become one of life’s victims, too. God knows I’d had little experience of a normal home life. I was fourteen, strong and healthy – but barely literate. I could, however, speak four languages. With my father, I spoke German (he refused to speak Polish – something he refused to discuss). My mother and I spoke in Burmese. In Italy, I spoke Italian and, everywhere else, a sort of mid-Atlantic English filled with hippy jargon, which was almost as incomprehensible as my Burmese to Miss Miles, the social worker who took on my case. I thought of her as a stupid cow.

But it was through Miss Miles that I met Mrs Diggory, one of the voluntary visitors at the Children’s Home I’d been sent to. As I approached the office, I heard Miss Miles say, ‘She’s only half-tamed, you know. You wouldn’t believe the squalor of the squat we found her in.’

And a gentle voice replied, ‘But it was home to her, I expect.’

‘She says she speaks Burmese, Italian and German.’ She obviously didn’t believe it.

‘My husband was in Rangoon until 1953. It will be a pleasure for him to have someone to speak Burmese with again.’

‘Well, Mrs Diggory, if you are quite sure…’

I was invited to tea at the Diggorys’ on Sunday afternoons. To begin with, I resented the way I was expected to behave. I couldn’t put my hot tea down on the table in case I stained the wood; instead I was given a coaster – also made of wood. How bonkers was that? And then I had to take my feet off the chairs. I could feel the knot of anger growing.

‘Don’t worry, my dear,’ said Mr Diggory, ‘if you want to sit cross-legged on the sofa, that’s fine. Just take off your shoes.’ He smiled and the knot loosened a bit.

‘I’m not used to chairs and things.’

‘Why should you be? In up-country Burma we did very well without.’

If it hadn’t been for the Diggorys, I’d have absconded from the Home, and drifted back to the squat; I missed the freedom to do what I wanted. But it was such a pleasure to speak Burmese again – even though mine was bazaar Burmese and Mr Diggory’s was more formal – that I continued to visit them. Then, they were both so kind and interested in my life that I couldn’t help liking them.

Mrs Diggory reminded me of my father – both had the same quality of gentle toughness. As a young woman, Mrs Diggory had driven an ambulance through the London Blitz during the blackout, and, in my mind, this gave her a sort of link with my father, surviving, somehow, amid the rubble of his home in Poland.

When I was sixteen, I left school and the Children’s Home. I’d hated my school and learnt very little, but I could, more or less, read and write. Miss Miles summoned me to her office and told me that I would be found suitable lodgings and that she would arrange for me to start work in a local clothes factory. I shrugged. I would run away if it was too awful.

But Mrs Diggory had other ideas about my future. ‘It’s a waste of Anna’s talents,’ she told Miss Miles. ‘My husband and I would like to put her through a good Language College, if we can find one that will overlook her lack of qualifications. What do you think, Anna? You would do German and Italian, of course, and learn typing, short-hand and various interpretation skills, I expect.’

Language School! I’d no idea such places existed. Unexpectedly, I felt my eyes prickle.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ said Miss Miles, with a stiff smile. ‘We do occasionally send girls to Typing School. The Local Authority has a Contingency Fund which would pay for Anna’s board and lodging during the course. ’

‘Think carefully, Anna,’ said Mrs Diggory. ‘We will give you a modest allowance but it will be just pocket money, I’m afraid. Of course, in the end, you’ll be able to get a much better job than working in a factory but it won’t be easy at the beginning.’

She was right. It wasn’t the lack of money that worried me, I was used to that; it was the snootiness of the other students. They were mostly middle class and I came from a Children’s Home. And I was obviously foreign. Although my father had had blue-eyes and fair hair, I had inherited my mother’s olive skin and straight dark hair. The girls teased me with jokes pretending that I didn’t even know how taps worked, and the men looked on me as an easy lay.

I found them difficult to deal with. Until my mother died, I’d lived the sort of life where I could easily not have known how taps worked, and where sexual promiscuity was taken for granted. I’d slept with men since I was thirteen and thought little of it. During that year at the Language College I had to learn new ways of behaving; now it was taps I must turn on, not men.

There were exceptions, of course, Daphne Neville, for one – and Joss Stapleton. Daphne was my complete opposite in many ways: she was convent-bred, games-y, horsey, and had a mop of fair curls. We would listen for hours, open-mouthed, to tales of each other’s lives.

‘Go on,’ I’d say. ‘You were in someone else’s dorm and Sister Theresa came in – and then what?’

I was fascinated by the bizarre rules of convent boarding-school life.

But there were things I couldn’t tell her – like the time my mother had a miscarriage and we’d wrapped the tiny foetus in an old newspaper, covered it in leaves, and buried it in a wood. Or stories about my first lover, a West Indian called Leroy, who played the guitar like an angel when he was high, and had a voice like liquid gold. He was the one who’d comforted me most after my father died.

‘Oh! You were so lucky to be free, Anna!’ Daphne cried. ‘I still feel guilty if I wear a summer dress that shows too much top – which means anything below the neckline. I wish I’d been you!’

‘I wish I’d been you, too!’ Just having a home with a dog that was part of the family, I thought. I could never have a pet, we moved too much. Someone once gave me a lizard in Italy, but it died of cold when I brought it to England.

There were awful moments, too, like the first time Daphne burst into tears after I borrowed something of hers without telling her and lost it. Among my parents and their friends, if you wanted something, you just took it. I never thought of it as stealing. It was more like Daphne’s convent where things were held in common; it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t take something of Daphne’s if I wanted it.

‘But, Anna, that scarf was a birthday present from my brother,’ she said, her blue eyes filling with tears. ‘You must know where you left it.’

Where was it? I didn’t know. I was devastated by those tears.

‘Oh, Daphne! Have my green one. Have anything!’

‘I don’t want anything. I want my red scarf!’

In the end we made it up; but Daphne was still hurt and bewildered. Part of me felt, what a stupid fuss about a thing. But I also envied her. I didn’t have a brother. My parents came and went; I was often left on my own for weeks in the vague charge of somebody or other. There had never been a time when I’d known anyone for long enough for them to remember my birthday, let alone give me a present. People drifted in and out of my life. I got a casual, ‘Hi, Anna!’ and later a waved ‘Ciao’ when they left, and that was all.

It wasn’t until my first Christmas at the Language College, when the Diggorys invited me to lunch on Christmas Day and gave me a present of a warm winter coat that I had any inkling of Daphne’s feelings. I loved that coat! It was my very own, bought for me and I’d have been devastated if anyone had taken it. That January, when the new term started, I said ‘sorry’ again to Daphne for taking her brother’s scarf and, this time, I meant it.

That wasn’t my only lesson. I nearly failed my end of term exams through being quite unable to understand that a two hour exam beginning at 10 a.m. meant precisely that.

‘You do realize, Anna,’ said my tutor, crossly, ‘that you were late for the German exam and you didn’t finish the Italian paper. If it hadn’t been for your fluency in the orals, you would have been chucked out.’

‘Sorry!’ I muttered.

‘Don’t apologize to me! Apologize to yourself – and to the kind people whose money you would have wasted.’

‘Time,’ my father used to say, ‘shit, Man, it’s just a bourgeois convention.’

‘I don’t have a watch,’ I said sullenly.

‘Then buy one!’

I did – but I felt a traitor.

At first glance, Joss Stapleton and I had nothing whatsoever in common. Ex-Eton and Oxford, wrapped in a sort of upper-class self-confidence, he strode along the College corridors as if he owned the place. He was tall, dark, good-looking and highly intelligent. Half the girls in the College were in love with him, including poor Daphne.

But there was something about him that was vulnerable, too – a sort of doomed quality like one of the First World War poets, that golden boy Rupert Brooke perhaps. When I got to know him better, I came to see that his upbringing was as erratic as my own, only, in his case, he had a string of nannies to look after him, grooms to teach him to ride and housemaids to pet him. They stayed only a few years, and then left. Like me, he was casual about time and property – unlike me, he got away with it. He had the morals of an alley cat.

‘Why should it be all right for Joss to behave badly?’ I asked a starry-eyed Daphne. ‘He stands you up, you don’t mind. He breaks your camera, you forgive him. He sleeps around and, somehow, it’s all right.’

‘I … I’m in love with him, I suppose.’

‘You are fortunate, Anna,’ said Mrs Diggory, when I told her about Daphne’s heartbreak after Joss dropped her. ‘Your upbringing has given you something, you know. I doubt whether Joss parading his sexual charm would impress you much.’

I stared at her. Mrs Diggory and I had never discussed sex. ‘I’m too experienced, you mean?’ I said cautiously.

‘Perhaps.’ She looked at me for a moment. ‘During the war I had a number of affairs – there were plenty of dashing Polish officers around – but it took me a long time to understand that sex wasn’t the same thing as love. I don’t suppose you have that problem.’

‘True,’ I said, ‘but I thought you’d be shocked!’

‘My dear, I’m far too old to be shocked.’

Things ended as I thought they would. Joss passed through Daphne like a scythe through ripe corn. He robbed her of her virginity and, for a time, her self-respect, and swept on. He cut a swathe through the prettiest girls in Daphne’s French class, and then he turned his attention to me.

He was a sexy man – and he knew it. He also had sense of fun that was very attractive, though I was determined to hold him at arm’s length. My tutor’s words had sunk in. I was going to work and I wanted the Diggorys to be proud of me – an affair with Joss could only end badly.

But, instead, Joss set himself to educate me. Why? I had the feeling that it was probably a pre-seduction ploy but why shouldn’t I accept what he offered? I’d make sure that it did not include bed. He was far better read than I was, of course. He took me to the theatre, lent me books, opened my ears to music, my eyes to art, and taught me the principles of rational argument. My vocabulary trebled (I bought myself a dictionary – and used it) and my essay marks shot up from C- to A. By the end of the year, I was articulate, socially confident and far better dressed.

‘When I met you,’ said Joss smugly, ‘you were a grubby little chrysalis. Now you’re a beautiful butterfly!’

‘I am grateful to you,’ I said. ‘I’ve enjoyed it. But my tutor and the Diggorys have also been very good to me. You are not the only person to have helped me, you know!’

Joss waved the Diggorys away impatiently. ‘But why won’t you sleep with me? You told me yourself that you weren’t a virgin.’

‘If I were still a virgin, I’d know no better. I’m grateful to you, Joss, but I know your type. The communes I grew up in were full of men like you. They may not have spoken like old Etonians but underneath they were charming but selfish – just like you. I’m not in love with you.’ I see you too clearly, I thought. ‘And don’t try to kid me that you’re in love with me, because I know you’re not.’

His smile vanished. He glared at me. ‘Well, fuck you!’ He left, slamming the door behind him.

‘I don’t know how you dared,’ said Daphne, later. She was thinner, but the haunting misery had gone.

‘I knew how it would end,’ I said. ‘You didn’t.’

Daphne sighed. ‘He’s a charming bastard. I know that now.’

‘So am I,’ I said lightly. ‘And I’m a real one, Joss is only pretending. One day, he’ll do the sensible thing, marry the right sort of girl, and his mother will be thrilled. All will end happily for him.’

I was wrong, though. Just as I valued Daphne’s friendship because she dealt truthfully with me, so Joss, after a few months of flaunting girls in front of me, sought me out again. Why, I wondered. Possibly because nobody had ever said ‘No’ to him before.

‘Hi, Anna,’ he said one evening, putting his arm around me. ‘I’ve missed you, you know. Let’s get married. We’ll be so good together.’

I laughed.’ But I don’t want to marry you, Joss!’ Whenever I look at the Diggorys, I thought, I can see that they love each other. They enjoy being in each other’s company and they help each other. That’s what I wanted – eventually – and I was not going to settle for less.

Joss pulled me against his shoulder and started stroking my hair. ‘I know I’m selfish.’

‘And manipulative.’ His other hand had slipped round to my breast.

I eased myself out of his embrace. ‘Joss! I’m only 17 – I don’t want to get married just yet. I want to spread my wings, to see what the world has to offer, to find out what I want to do with my life. ‘And you shouldn’t be thinking of marriage yet, either! You can’t be more than 21 yourself.’

He shrugged. ‘I’ll be 22 next month. So?’

‘I want to live in the real world,’ I said. ‘Exams start next week, and I  need to revise. What about you? Do you have a job lined up?’

Joss sighed. ‘I’m to spend a year in my father’s office in Paris. What are you doing? I hope you’re applying for a decent job.’

‘I’ve been offered a job in Rome. I have an Italian passport, you know. I was born there.’

‘You never told me!’

‘You never asked.’

‘I see.’ He sounded suddenly weary. ‘So this is the end of the road for us?’

‘That depends on how you look at it. For me, it’s a beginning. Before, I just drifted along, like my parents. Now, I can choose my own path.’

‘So everything in the garden’s lovely?’ Joss spoke sarcastically but I sensed something new in his voice, a slight shift of gear, perhaps.

‘Do you mean that it’s been a waste of time for you, helping me?’

Joss shook his head. ‘It was good fun. But I’ll admit that you’ve bruised my ego, if that’s what you want to know. I’ve learnt something about myself and I don’t particularly like what I see.’

‘And you’d rather not have learnt it?’

‘No,’ he said seriously. ‘I’d rather see myself more clearly. Besides, I enjoyed it – perhaps I should teach.’ There was a moment’s silence. ‘Let me know your address in Rome. I may surprise you with a visit. Keep in touch, at any rate.’

I nodded, ‘I’ll do that.’ I doubted that Joss would visit me but who knows? Life moves on, I thought, and I shall move with it.

I suppose you could say I’d grown up.

© Elizabeth Hawksley, 2021



(Frost Fair)

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10 thoughts on “Learning the Language – a short story by Elizabeth Hawksley”

  1. Elizabeth, what a superb story – it held me transfixed to the last word! Each character is true, with their own voice, their own story – each sprang onto the page fully developed; the lives of each carried on in the background, even when we couldn’t see them; and I could see them living way ahead into the future. I long to know what happens to Anna in Rome.

    More please!

      1. My father worked with a Thomas Hawksley as a partner in civil water engineering firm and I am aware of the possible links in Nottingham between an earlier generation of Hawksley and Byron. I was just looking up Byron and Hawksley and inadvertently came across your blog re Byron. I wondered if you were aware of this and whether your family name here is the same or merely a coincidence.
        Be interesting to know and if so I can share some other brief details

        1. Thank you for your comment, Andrew. One of my Hawksley ancestors was Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893) who was President of the Institute of Civil Engineering in 1871. They have his portrait there and various mentions. You can (or could) visit for free. Have a look at their website.

          I haven’t heard of a Byron connection.

  2. Your story held me throughout. Enjoyable and believable. Every character rings true. And the ending is of the kind I love, where the possibilities hinted at provide much entertaining food for thought.

    1. Thank you, so much, Beth – particularly for your thoughts on the ending. I re-wrote that ending a number of times – it took ages to get the nuances I wanted. I put up the story at a few minutes past midnight with one ending and, if you’d happened to read the story at about 7 am or about 10 am it would have been subtly different each time!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon – I hope it was a compliment! Anna and Co exist only in my imagination but the story takes bits and pieces from events in the 1960s which I knew about. Like many writers, I have a magpie mind.

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