Favourite 3 Writers:
23:09, 1 Jul 2016
Learning to Read
Is that the duty psychiatrist? ‘the caller asked as I groaned inwardly. Somehow you can always tell when it’s a police officer. Why did requests for Sections always come so late at night? It was two a.m. by the time I reached the jail.
‘He’s foreign, doc.’ the burly desk sergeant told me. ‘Been working the tills at Tesco’s for six months. But behaving odd recently, the manager says. Went crazy this afternoon. Shouting that people had been spying on him, pulling foodstuffs off the shelves, scaring the customers.’
The man was sitting on the floor in the corner of the cell, his chin resting on his chest, his hands covering his ears. He was unshaven, dressed in blue jeans and a clean t-shirt. The police had removed his belt and shoes. His name was Ali.
An enormous constable stood by the cell door while I began my examination of his mental state.
Ali looked up, listening carefully as I introduced myself and my purpose, then got to his feet.
‘I’m sorry doctor,’ he whispered, head bowed, looking at the floor. ‘I did not mean to cause this trouble. I must apologise.’ I was given a plastic chair and sat with my notebook on my lap. Ali sat on a bed which was fastened by rivets to the wall.
‘How long have you been in the UK, Ali?’
‘Eighteen months.’ He was still addressing the floor.
‘And you work in a supermarket?’
‘Here yes, but I was school master in Damascus.’ He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and lifted his head slightly.
‘Why did you leave? I asked’
‘My students held an anti-government demonstration. The next day a stranger came to my classroom and I say “who are you” and he say “ the man who has taken your job.” I would have been arrested if I’d argued. My brother is student here and I want to be teacher but my English no good so I read. To learn the language. But now they are sending me home and the people at the supermarket make fun of me.’
‘Why do you think they were making fun of you, Ali?’ I asked. I was confident that an examination of his thought processes and content would uncover evidence of paranoia and wondered if he might be an undiagnosed schizophrenic.
‘I tell them I am learning English and soon they begin quoting from the books I am reading. They always doing it. I know they haven’t read them so how would they know?’
‘What sort of things have they said?’
This morning my supervisor, she says ‘I haven’t slept a wink’ and then that the manager has sent her on a ‘wild goose chase’. Lots more also, but I forget some.’ I was puzzled by this.
‘What books have you been reading, Ali?’
Shakespeare and King James Bible, like on desert island discs. I have radio and always listen to it.
‘Why do you think these quotes mean your co-workers are making of fun of you?’
‘Someone must be watching me,’ he said, crossing his arms and looking up at me properly for the first time, his eyes narrowed. ‘Making record of what I read. Why would English people make phrases from Shakespeare? What sense does it make to them nowadays. There are no wild geese in Tesco’s.’
‘Is it just Shakespeare?’
‘No,’ he said shaking his head. ‘King James Bible also.’
‘What have they said?’
‘Yesterday one said ‘no rest for the wicked’ and another said ‘the blind leading the blind.’
‘So what happened today, Ali?’
My caseworker phoned this morning to tell me my asylum application had been rejected. I told the manager and he just said ‘you’ve got yourself in a pickle, Ali’. I’d just read ‘The Tempest’ but how could he know that?’
‘Anything else happen?’ I asked. By then I’d stop making notes.
‘There’s an old man who always comes on a Friday. He and I are friends. He likes football like me. I ask him if he is going to the match. But even he was in on the joke.’
‘What did he say?’ I asked. Ali shuffled his feet.
‘He say ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ I just read Matthew’s gospel the night before. Somebody must have told him.’
‘But Ali,’ I said, ‘these phrases are commonplace. People say things like this all the time in England.’
He shook his head slowly, rubbed his jaw, then laughed.
‘The ordinary people talk like Shakespeare or King James?’ he said.
‘Yes, they do. Sometimes they don’t understand where the words came from, but they know what they mean.’
‘So they were not spying or making fun of me?’ he said pulling on his bottom lip, then ‘It was just chance they used them then?’
‘I think so, Ali,’ I said. ‘If you listen to people chatting on buses, in the street, on radio and television, people who don’t know you, they’ll say the same things. Not just Shakespeare and the Bible. Borrowed words and phrases from everywhere.’
Ali stared at me, not sure whether to believe me or not. I recommended that he be released, that care in the community would be more appropriate than a mental health sectioning.
I didn’t see him when he first attended for clinic review but did four months later. He was clean shaven and wearing a smart suit and tie. He smiled when he recognised me, grasping my hand.
‘You were right doctor,’ he said. ‘The English people, their heads are lexicons. Every time they talk they use the words of all the people who have come and gone long past. Arabic language is nothing like this!’
‘So no more worries that your colleagues are making fun of you, Ali?’
‘No, no more, doctor. But I left the supermarket. I work as teaching assistant now. My asylum has been successful.’
‘All’s well that ends well then Ali, as an Englishman might say.’
‘Yes doctor. But like you said, not just Shakespeare and the Bible. The Romans they left words behind and the people picked them up, then forget where they found them. The Angles and Saxons, the Vikings and Normans. All their best words survive and survive, even when the people have vanished. Most do not know when they chatter they honour all these people who once lived on this island. People like me, perhaps we’ll leave words for English too.’
‘Perhaps you will Ali.’ We shook hands, said goodbye, but he hesitated at the clinic door.
‘In my country,’ he said ‘bad people, they smash up their ancestry, pull down all the beautiful things left from the past. But this could never happen in England.’
‘Why not, Ali?’
‘Because everyone here carries their museum in their heads. A museum of words that cannot be smashed or lost. So many words I still have to read. It is good to know that they will always be there ready for me.’