Conversation Starter by Susan Elsley

People can be so unexpected. One minute they’re all over you asking questions. Then, puff, they’re gone and there’s no-one to listen to the trickle of words that you count as conversation. 
     I was the child who would never speak unless Gabrielle started a sentence for me.
     ‘Anna says, “can I have more…”,’ she would prompt, and I would open my mouth and the words would slide out.
     ‘Toast with peanut butter.’
     Gabrielle, my mum, giggled every time. 
     I kept it up. A child who chose when to speak. A few words at school to stop them sending me to speech therapy. ‘Thank you,’ at the corner shop, because Gabrielle said it was rude not to say anything. I slipped quietly into adulthood. 
     I kept going when Gabrielle was in hospital and too ill to start me off. I squeezed her fingers and said, ‘you’re in my heart for ever.’ 
     By then, I knew, and hadn’t cared, when she told me that I was adopted and that she was my always-there mother. Gabrielle was all the family I needed. Everyone told us we looked alike, with our brown eyes and long hair. Perhaps when you live in a cocoon of two, DNA floats round the air and you become a mash-up of shared cells. But I never caught Gabrielle’s knack for talking. I needed her joy-filled sentences to get me going. 
     When she died, I got rusty. Words were jammed in my throat as if one couldn’t get out, until the others were released. I wondered which were stuck near the top. Anxiety. Loneliness. Grief was there. A wedge of hard packed consonants and vowels that couldn’t move. 
     I shuddered to a stop. Each week I said only a few words., repeating ‘Anna’, ‘sorry’ and ‘yes’ over and over. After three months I was back at work. I put on a bright smile to compensate for not speaking.
     It was enough until one day it wasn’t. There was a new manager, a young man sharp as a fresh cut apple, and only a couple of years older than me.
He shook my hand, ‘hey, I’m Alex.’ 
     I usually managed to say my name. This time I opened my mouth to speak, and nothing happened. 
     Alex couldn’t resist a little quip. ‘All smiles and no tongue.’ 
     The rest of the team went quiet. When this had happened before I would do my little unlocking dance. Click my fingers, tap my foot and say ‘Anna’, and a couple more words. I did better at the corner shop. I’d say, ‘lovely day,’ to the woman who knitted baby matinee jackets in front of bottles of whisky. She always nodded, and said, ‘it is, my dear.’
     My wordlessness filled the open plan office, so my cheeks burned, and my fingernails pressed like the tips of knives into my palms. I put my tongue between my teeth to say ‘sorry,’ but it stuck to my palate. 
     I grabbed my bag and left. I walked the five miles home and got one sick line from the doctor and three more before I handed in my notice. The team sent me a bunch of wilted roses which rotted in their cellophane.
     At the kitchen table I scribbled down ideas about what might break my pact with silence. In the end it was something unexpected that made the words pop out. One alphabetic pellet after another.
     I’d taken to walking to the river which flowed behind the old Victorian factory. Nobody went there except teenagers who smoked weed and graffitied the walls at night. Their spray-painted letters looked like dancing silhouettes of black, red and yellow. I mouthed the phrases. Ajay Night Bloods. Nina Turtles.
     That day I got there early. The mist rose off the grass in a cold steam and the birds chattered as if they hadn’t met for days. A crow with a grey feather hopped on the grass next to the wall, goading me with his conversational caws. 
     I had taken my book out of my pack when I saw a man hauling a canoe onto the spit of land that counted as a river beach. When he turned round, he raised his hand, and I did the same. I opened the book at a random page and watched as the man tied the boat to a tree. He wasn’t tall. More like a wiry Jack Russell in red sports gear.
     He held up a packet of biscuits.
     ‘Want one?’.
     I shook my head and the book slid off my knee. It did a skit of a dance down the bank and the man bent down and picked it up. He climbed the mound of broken bricks and handed it back to me. 
     ‘Great place,’ he said, looking round with his fingers under the straps of his buoyancy aid. 
     I nodded and my shoulders relaxed. Perhaps that would be enough for this conversation.
     ‘You’d never know what it was before,’ he said.
     ‘What?’ fell out of my mouth before I realised that I’d answered him. 
     ‘A mill. The kind you started working in when you were fourteen. Clattering machines and no health and safety.’ He patted the wall. ‘And here it is standing proud.’
     I unclenched my fingers because he hadn’t noticed that I’d said only one thing.
     ‘Strange that these places should be so beautiful. What’s the next incarnation? Retirement flats or offices with river view?’
     ‘Keep it a ruin.’ I glanced over my shoulder as if the words had floated in from behind me, but he’d started me off. 
     ‘That’s my kind of answer.’ He slapped his thigh as if I’d said something glorious. ‘And that river ought to be a haven. But there’s nothing alive. The water’s poisoned.’
     Something I’d never said out loud before.
     ‘That’s it. Potassium and nitrates. Kills everything.’ 
     He didn’t seem to have noticed that my words slipped out on the back of his. He looked at me which he could, because I had pushed my hair behind my ears, and offered me the packet of biscuits again. This time I took one. He sat cross legged on the ground where there was a scrubby patch of grass. 
     ‘Theo,’ he said, and touched his forehead.
     ‘Great name,’ he said, ‘same as my gran’s. She came from Germany. Where are you from?’
     I was going to say, ‘here’, but that wasn’t true. 
     ‘Not sure,’ I said.
     I wanted to say that it hadn’t mattered because I’d managed. That Gabrielle had been everything.
     ‘A tough call. Not to know,’ said Theo. 
     I liked it that he didn’t ask me why. No baby photos. No first day at school anecdotes. There was only the fuzziness of something before, a foster carer who tried and finally, the happy beginnings with Gabrielle. Somewhere my words had got lost. Trapped in an air lock which had become a habit.
     I threw crumbs towards the crow. It pecked at the ground as if it had been given something it disliked.
     ‘My Oma - gran - never talked about it. Never talked much actually,’ said Theo.
     ‘Why didn’t she talk?’ I asked. 
     My tongue tingled at the strangeness of speaking.
     ‘Her parents put her on a train when she was five to escape from the Nazis. My mum said Anna felt abandoned. The shock made her mute.’
Mute. My word.
     ‘Did she ever speak?’ 
     ‘She started when she was old. Sometimes she never stopped. She told stories.’
     ‘What kind?’ 
     That was the third question I’d asked. 
     ‘Tales about her childhood. Lions roaring in the zoo. Imagining wolves behind every tree. Men in uniform setting fire to clothes thrown out of a window. Oma said she’d been storing up her stories for a lifetime.’
     I thought of a wolf prowling through streets, nosing among discarded clothes and watched by a small girl waiting for a train. 
     ‘I don’t have any,’ I said.
     ‘We all have stories, Anna,’ said Theo. He sounded like Gabrielle, urging me on when I wanted to say nothing.
     I stood up and walked over to the wall. I had never noticed the minuscule ferns that grew between the cracks. 
     ‘Mine got lost,’ I said, picking at the mortar.
     Theo waited till I turned round. 
     ‘They’re there somewhere. You can find them,’ he said.
     The chocolate on the biscuit had started to melt and I licked my fingers. 
     ‘I’ll be down again tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Training for a race.’
     ‘Might be here,’ I said, with a quickness I didn’t recognise. 
     That night I slept until nine. On the way to the river, I stopped at the corner shop. I picked up a pack of biscuits and went up to the counter where the woman sat. She held up her knitting. The jumper had a pattern like a spiders’ web, so delicate I could see her smile through it. She held it towards me, and I stroked the white feathery lace.
     ‘For my granddaughter’s birthday.’ 
     ‘It’s gorgeous.’ I said, putting the inflection on the second word. 
     ‘I knew you would like it,’ she said.
     At the river, Theo had tied his canoe up and was sitting on a rock. He held out a cup.
     ‘Morning, Anna.’
     I took the cup and sipped the coffee. The warmth rippled in my throat, and I licked my lips. 
     ‘Can we go out in your boat?’ I said.

Susan Elsley writes short and long fiction and lives by the sea in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her stories have been published in Postbox, PENning, Pushing Out the Boat, Northwords Now and the Blue Nib.  She was shortlisted for Moniack Mhor’s Emerging Writer Award in 2019. She is torn between working on her short stories and her first novel. 


Twitter: @susanelsley

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