Monday, October 16, 2017

Tibetan Fling By Roger Meachem

Roger Meachem's characterful story about a Tibetan linguist reuniting with his old Nottinghamshire school friend.

It's not often you see a young Asian man in full Scottish Highland dress wandering around an ancient Nottinghamshire graveyard, peering at tombstones.

This particular graveyard did attract tombstone tourists - graveyard gawpers - from time to time; the church and some of the surviving gravestones dated back to the twelfth century. Robin Hood might have sharpened an arrowhead on one or two, and a civil war battle fought nearby probably contributed a few more.

I'd been at the church to photograph a local wedding, and expected that would be the highlight of my day. There was no need to hurry back to the mall where my studio occupied a lonely corner, and so I sat in the shade of a yew tree watching the visitor. He moved from one headstone to another, his kilt swinging lightly. I couldn't tell what plaid he was wearing but it wasn't just the kilt, he also wore the sporran, tartan socks, black brogues and - despite the heat - a tweed jacket. He paused a couple of times, once to brush with his fingers at a headstone, presumably clearing away moss, and once to hold up his phone and take a picture. As he came closer, I decided he might be Tibetan, not any Tibetan, but one I had known.

He still hadn't seen me in the deep shade and turned to walk away down the path that led to the church door. His style of walk finished off any lingering doubts: Only Tak Norbu walked as if he wore springs in his shoes.

"Tak!"

He turned to peer back at me as I came out into the sunlight.

"Tak, it's me, Rick."

I hadn't seen that ear-to-ear grin since the fifth form in the Grammar School.

"Ricky? Ricky Beddow? Is that you?" He looked genuinely pleased to see me.



He'd booked into a hotel a few miles away, but I convinced him to cancel and stay with us. Our kids couldn't get enough of him; An impromptu ceilidh took place in the garden with Tak showing us how to dance the Flying Scotsman (a few bemused neighbours hanging over fences watching). It was near midnight before we could get the kids to bed.

We chatted about generalities so that Helen could join in: politics, the children's schooling, holidays and an iceberg four times the size of London that had just begun a voyage in the Antarctic Ocean. Helen must have noticed that Tak avoided telling us anything about himself, but she's a teacher, patience is her strong suit. Besides, she'd wring the information from me later. When she finally left us to go to bed I poured Tak and myself a dram and began; "You went off back to Tibet in the middle of fifth-year. Now you turn up wandering around a Nottinghamshire graveyard dressed like Rob Roy."

He took a sip of the smoky malt.

"I was only in Tibet for a year, then in Japan. I've said I live in London now, but weekends I visit churchyards up around here. I've visited every cemetery and burial ground within fifty miles. On rainy days I dress as though I'm in that old French movie - the one with all the umbrellas. If it snows I wear grips on my brogues - wet gravestones can be slippy."

He spoke in the precise English I remembered, the sing-song accent reminding me that his mother had been Welsh. He hadn't changed; he'd never give a straight answer if he could take an interesting detour. We'd been friends from when we'd met as First Years at the Grammar. I knew that putting a direct question to Tak would lead to a thicket of answers, so I took a sip from my malt and played the old game.

"I suppose you always carry a clove or two of garlic in the sporran of your best dance-kilt. Why would you be wandering around graveyards if you weren't searching for vampires?"

He just smiled, "I need to go back a bit, don't I Rick?" And settling himself deeper into the armchair he began.

"You remember Rick how desperate we both were to learn French when we met that first day at the Grammar? I'd just seen that film 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg'. You'd been on a trip to France with your parents. We both had an interest in the language but I'd also fallen in love with Catherine Deneuve. I didn't realise she was old enough by then to be my grandmother. Do you remember my French Period? It lasted about six weeks. I drove my parents wild, demanding baguettes with onion soup, playing Piaf endlessly on the CD player and using my father's bowling ball to play boules. I found a French primer in a local second-hand bookshop and read it between slurps of soup and crunches of loaf." He gave me a grin. "It probably still exists, that book. Someone will turn a page and find fossilised crumbs."

I brought him back to his tale, "You shared it with me, Home University Guide to Fluent French."

"An ambitious title," Tak smiled, "It hardly got beyond aunts opening windows and uncles shutting doors."

"Or nephews and nieces drawing curtains," I joined in. "We developed an impression of problems with ventilation in continental homes."

Tak opened his mouth wide as though about to shout and I recalled that he always used to laugh like this - silently. He sipped again at the whisky then shook his head. "Do you remember Rick? We imagined our French teacher would exhibit pleasure on finding a couple of his pupils who had learned French for," here he put on a mock French accent, "my aunt opens the window, and my uncle throws her through it."

I joined in again, "But this was before we met..."

"Monsieur Dauphin." We called in unison.



Mr. Dauphin (who liked to be called Monsieur) must have been hired by Francophobes to teach French to the English: there's no other explanation. Somehow this misogynistic, crass, cretinous, bullying bastard had been given the job. His mission? To drive out any possible love of the French language or culture from the mind of each child he encountered. I have to say, he was a genius in that, if nothing else. The school had sorted its new intake of pupils and placed both Tak and myself in the fast stream. Mr. Dauphin, Head of French taught that fast stream: dammed it, blocked it.

Tak had taken it badly. He had come to the school already fluent in three languages: English, Welsh and, from his Dad's side, Tibetan.

He laughed now, another silent yawn of amusement. "Within a week I jettisoned my French Primer. Within a fortnight I sent Piaf whirling through the sky while I shot at her with my air-rifle. Within a month I tore up my poster of Les Parapluies."

He paused, and his voice took on a droll note, "Oh the Dauphin was good Rick; reading us Baudelaire's poetry, having us attempt to translate Voltaire into English then back again, giving us Proust as occasional diversion. Do you remember? He had us write out French verbs for hours and punctuated the lessons with applications of sarcasm to our sensitive souls - especially my sensitive soul! I rebelled, I refused to learn from that tyrant."

That was true. Everyone knew that Tak spoke a couple of languages already and the Dauphin seemed to take it as a personal insult that the only linguist in the class wouldn't even pretend to learn a single word of French. Tak had to endure this man's sarcastic ministrations for half a decade.

"For years I refused every opportunity to learn French, to taste French food, watch their films and listen to their music and that was a crime the Dauphin perpetuated on me."

I didn't correct the word. Tak's English was as good as mine, but I could see he was angry. He took a deep breath.

"Until I met Alix! I was twenty, jobless, and dancing on the side of an Amsterdam canal, to Blues-Rock. I earned pennies. Then I found my first kilt in a street market. I bought CDs of Scottish music. Can you imagine? A Tibetan dancing to a Scottish fling and wearing a kilt? People flocked to watch me, cheering. One day a young woman joined my dance, her arms raised high, and the shouts and applause tripled. And I discovered she was French."

"Alix? Where is she? Are you still together?"

Tak had recovered his poise, and I could see by his look that I'd get an oblique answer.

"For three years we danced the length and breadth of Western Europe. She rekindled my delight in her native language and even when she left me for a Belgian beanpole - taking my second best kilt with her - I still loved all things French, from Jacques Tati to Tarte Tatin, from La Mer to romantic affairs."

I looked pointedly at his kilt. "And you're still dancing for a living?"

"Ah my friend, this is a hobby. My sepulchral hobby. Remember that the Dauphin died that last year I was at the school ten years ago. I'm guessing he's buried somewhere in or near Nottingham and I'm looking for his grave."

I had to interrupt, there was something I ought to tell him, but first I wanted to hear more. "You're having problems finding his grave?"

"Indeed. I can trace no record, it is strange, but there is fun in the chase, in the hunt! You asked me whether I carried garlic with me. I do! The Dauphin's breath always smelled of garlic, remember? When I've found him, I want to chew the stuff and spit it out all over the grave. That will arouse the attention of whatever Dauphinic molecules are lying around, festering. Having got their attention, I'll begin to dance. I'll dance and dance on the old fraud's grave. I'll dance in my brogues, and my kilt, and shout my praises for all things French. I'll show him."

"You hated him that much?" We'd all disliked the Dauphin, though he probably neither noticed or cared. The hatred of generations of youngsters must have bounced off his thick skin.

"I'll tell you what I do now Rick; I'm a translator. Tibetan, Mandarin, Japanese and French! And that man almost persuaded me that linguistics was barren, a bore. You, Rick, did you ever learn another language?"

I admitted I hadn't.

"He single-handedly destroyed the love of languages in every child he taught. I'm certain of it." Tak smacked his palm down on the arm of his chair. "And I'm making it my mission to stop him."

"But he's dead Tak!"

"I have studied Shinto. The Dauphin was a kami, a bad kami - an evil spirit. He will reappear in time and continue his work unless I drive him away."

I wondered whether this was a recognised version of Shinto, but I liked the idea and decided it was time to speak. "I can tell you where to find the Dauphin. I'll take you there, but I've a favour to ask in return."

Tak would never have found it alone. Mr Dauphin had been a made up name. Who would have thought that the Head of French had the most English of all names: Bill Smith! It had been the talk of the school when we'd all attended a memorial service for our dear departed despot. But Tak had already left for Tibet; he'd have still been hunting had I not spotted him that day.

Tak granted me the favour I asked. The rest is history. You've all seen the photo I took of him dancing, Tibetan Fling. The National Photographic Portrait Prize gave me prestige and clients: and that photo still sells posters and cards. I moved into a proper studio.

We keep in touch, and perhaps he did put the wicked Dauphin-kami to flight. I've begun to learn French.

6 comments:

  1. The power of the pedagogue ... to be used for good or ill. A nice story, amusing and thoughtful with a little oblique strangeness woven through,
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. original, credible and seductive. an excellent read!
    reminds me of one or two of my teachers!
    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  3. A light, entertaining read. Thoroughly enjoyable.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A delightful story - well paced and with likable characters. Well done. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Speaking as someone with an almost pathological interest in the sepulchral I enjoyed the phrases; 'tombstone tourists' and 'graveyard gawpers.' I preferred the clever use of backflash in the earlier conversation with Tak, to relying on the later technique of flashback in the description of the Dauphin. The writing paints a great picture of Tak and I can just hear his voice.
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete
  6. George T. PhilibinOctober 21, 2017 at 8:36 AM

    I like how the contrast with a young Asian man in full
    Scottish Highland Dress grabbed my attention. Good
    beginning and one that I’ll have to reminded myself about
    when I am engaged with my own writings: contrast!
    I love all the unique takes on graveyards, and I
    especially like how Robin Hood might have sharpened an
    arrowhead on one or two headstones.

    The two old school chums reminisce and their stories about
    school life cover what would be expected. Mr. Dauphin who
    taught French but managed to get his students to hate it,
    would be one of those teachers that all readers of this
    story knew in their schools. Names might be different but
    I’m sure we could say how they came from the same mold.
    Tak’s dancing wearing a Scottish Kilt throughout Europe
    solidifies my interest in this story and held it until the
    end.

    Elements needed for a successful short story are present
    in this one. Reread this story a couple of times and make
    notes about the authors use of show and tell how the story
    is built around a contrast: An Asian wearing a Scottish
    Kilt while dancing around Europe!

    Very good job, and I must say one that could be use in a
    writing course!

    ReplyDelete