Weekend Fiction: International English
A voice tells him to make himself comfortable. A disembodied, non-British voice, its accent impossible to place but with the curled vowels of American English. An international-school voice. Female, of course – but then they always are. Clients find female voices more appealing than male ones, regardless of the gender or orientation of the client themselves. Much research has gone into confirming this.
He looks to the four corners of the ceiling. No evidence of any kind of public address system. The voice may as well be coming from inside his own head.
Once again the voice - this ideal voice - tells him to make himself comfortable. But this only makes him feel less relaxed, as if he’d been doing it incorrectly before and now needs to be corrected. He is not in his world. That’s how Bob would describe it, if anyone were to ask.
Then again, not being in his world is kind of the aim here.
For a third time, the lovely Latina/ Euro/ whatever-it-is voice tells him to relax. So Bob tries to relax. He places his arms on the cream leather rests of his chair. Toys with the idea of yanking the little lever on the outside of the right armrest in order to activate the chair’s flip-out footstool thing; decides against it. Does a little bit of the mind-clearing breathing exercise his counsellor told him about. This works for a bit, until it prompts him to think about how long it’s been since he’s done the breathing exercises with any kind of regularity, and then he feels even more anxious than he did before. The pretty voice gets halfway through telling him to make himself comfortable for a fourth time when the consultation room door opens and a smiling man enters.
“Bob?” asks the man, although it sounds more like Bahb to Bob. Meaning this fella must be American, he thinks, or at least Canadian. Not something you see much of here in the middle of Essex, either way.
“Awesome.” The smiling man introduces himself as Joel and thrusts out a palm. Bob stands to receive the handshake. Joel says there’s no need to get up, and tells Bob just to sit down and make himself comfortable.
Joel sits at the desk and jabs into life a tablet that lays there. “Now Bob, we’ve got your inquiry here,” he says, pronouncing it ink-whirry. “Okay, you’ve filled in your personal details. Let’s just see here - oh, yes, every section is complete. That’s fantastic. I mean that’s half the work done right there.”
Bob smiles agreeably. He’s not surprised by Joel’s flawless smile and full head of hair, but he’ll admit he found the bloke’s handshake disarmingly butch just then. Joel’s palm was at least as rough as Bob’s own. Weird. They don’t do manual work up there, do they?
While tapping away at the tablet, Joel rubs a shoulder with one hand and winces. “Got a twinge to an old injury over lunch there,” he says. “I just piped straight over here from Red Rock, Nevada. You ever go there? The bouldering is intense.”
So he’s a climber, thinks Bob. That explains the rough hands. Bob shakes his head in response to Joel’s query. He still hasn’t actually spoken a word in Joel’s presence.
Joel finishes tapping at the screen. The tablet beeps in a way that seems to please him.
“Well this is all going great,” he says. “I mean your education looks unorthodox - you’re really one hundred per cent self-educated? I mean it’s fine, you meet the academic requirements. It’s just something I’ve never seen before. You’re also way, way older than most people we issue visas to. Usually it’s high school kids who’re just looking to get a little experience on the higher plane before going to college. But I guess your path through life has been a little more…?” Joel makes a zig-zaggy motion with his hand.
Bob chuckles, and finally he speaks. “Oh mate, tell me about it.”
Joel looks quizzical just for a second. “Uh-huh,” he says haltingly. “So that’s a yes? Okay, well that’s great, actually. Real great. We do have some people up there already with your kind of a background, but it’s nowhere near enough. Diversity is as big of a ‘thing’ up there as it is down here.” Joel scrolls down the screen. “Okay, so, the only other thing I need to check at this stage is your finance.”
“Don’t worry about that, pal,” says Bob. “I’ve got all that right here.” He grabs a folder out of the rucksack between his ankles and takes from it a half-inch thick block of notes.
Joel stares at the rectangle of currency in Bob’s hand. Bob fans it out like a deck of cards. “Six months of overtime, that is,” says Bob. “Worth every minute it was, though, tell you.”
“Sorry, say that again?” says Joel.
Joel watches Bob’s mouth as he repeats himself.
“Uh, would you excuse me a second?” says Joel.
“Yeah, course,” says Bob. “Nothing wrong is there?”
Joel appears about to say “What?”, but then he just smiles and exits the room.
It’s a sunny day, and the consultation room’s blinds have been drawn to reduce glare. Bob rises from his chair and tweezes open a gap between the slats. Anything to take his mind off the voice that’s come back to tell him she hopes he’s sitting comfortably. Bob takes a little look outside. Not at the street – he’s seen this pavement too many times, upended its bins into his truck on so many grey mornings. No. Bob wants to see the sky. He presses his face as close to the glass as he can. Craning to see above the passing heads of the men and women of his nation, above the rooftops, to the heavens, he looks up to the cool clean world of those men and women of no nation. Way up there, almost too high to make out but not quite, he can see the pipes swaying like reeds in a river as they’re buffeted by the happy, healthy bodies of the citizens of the higher plane as they slide down to wherever on earth they feel like visiting today.
Joel re-enters the room with one of those people now, a happy, healthy-looking woman whom Joel introduces as his colleague Annie. Annie greets Bob warmly in what sounds to Bob like a native English accent, then pats down her hair and apologises for her flushed appearance. “I just quickly piped into Courcheval and caught her coming off a slope,” Joel explains. “But she owes me a favour so I don’t feel too bad about that.” Joel laughs. Bob goes along with it. Annie rolls her eyes sarcastically and dusts a little snow off the arm of her jacket.
Annie sits down and invites Bob to do the same.
“So Bob,” says Annie, “Just briefly talk me through where you got to with Joel.”
“Righto,” says Bob - and he tells her how they’d got to here. How Joel said he’d definitely filled out the form all correct and proper. How everything seemed fine till he tried to pay the man. How it’d taken him half a year of 4am starts to get that money together. How he didn’t mind that, though, and how he’d happily do it all over again for the chance to get his hands on a temporary-residency visa for the higher plane.
“A temporary residency?” says Annie, when Bob’s finished. “Did I catch that right?”
“S’right,” Bob says. “I just wanna stay up there for as long as I can afford to, basically.” Bob takes out the cash again and passes it to Annie. Standing behind her, Joel bites at a thumbnail and watches his colleague. Annie considers the deck of banknotes - not its value, but the object itself.
“Wow,” she says.
“Yeah,” says Bob, misreading Annie’s reaction as awe. “Don’t worry, it’s all there,” he says. “Seven-twenty. Should be enough for a ninety-day visa. Least that’s what it says on your website, like.”
Annie looks to Joel. Joel looks back at Annie.
“On the website,” Bob repeats. “I’d be after permanent residence if I had the coin for it, tell you. No danger of me making enough money for that in this lifetime though. Not down here anyway. But see that’s the thing – ninety days up there will fix me up better than ninety years down here. Three months with full access to everything, mixing with the right people, being able to pipe in and out of wherever the opportunities are – that’s got to help me get ahead in life a lot quicker than lumbering along down here. I’m making a new start, see, and getting up there is just what I need.” Bob taps his temple. “The lot I work with reckon I’m mad for even trying to get on the higher plane, but I told ‘em I’d do it. I bloody told ‘em.”
Annie says nothing.
“See?” Joel whispers behind her shoulder.
“Yeah,” Annie whispers back, from the side of her mouth. “I mean even I didn’t understand a word of that.”
Annie hands Bob back the cash and folds her hands in her lap. “Bob, I’ll be honest - I didn’t quite catch all of what you said there,” she says. “Well, actually, I didn’t catch any of it, frankly. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve been to our site, but there is a language requirement for the pass - for all our passes.”
“Yeah, I’ve been to the site,” says Bob. “I just said so. And course I know about the language requirement. English, it says. International English. And I’m English, so, you know, job’s a good ‘un.”
“Yes!” says Annie. “International English! That’s right. I definitely got that part. Phew! Now Bob, you’ve said on your form that you meet the requirements - but at this stage I’m going to have to say we’re not sure you do. I mean I’m qualified to assess sixteen local varieties of English, but even I’m struggling to follow you here.”
Bob notices that no voice has asked him to make himself comfortable for some time now.
“And even if we could approve your application based on what you’ve said,” Annie continues, “we can’t accept payment in this format. Sterling is just - it’s too solid a currency, put it that way. With the kind of statements your prime minister is given to making lately, by the time we get this cash to the bank its value could have halved.”
Your prime minister? thinks Bob.
“But hey, Bob?” says Joel, “Bob, we’re really so grateful for your inquiry today. So grateful.”
“Oh, absolutely,” says Annie. “And it’s not like we’re giving you a no.”
“Oh, no,” says Joel. “It’s not a no.”
“Definitely not a no,” says Annie. “Just more of a… ‘not yet’?”
“That’s right,” says Joel, with a little absentminded rub of his sore shoulder. “In fact if you can just get that money converted? Maybe internationalise that English of yours a little bit and get it certified – and you’re a studious man so I’m absolutely convinced you can do that – then we’ll be able to get you up there on the higher plane with everyone else in no time at all. That’s my guarantee to you today.”
Not my world, Bob thinks. Joel grins. Bob does not doubt his sincerity one bit. Annie smiles sadly, sympathetically. He has no doubts about her integrity either.
“So then, Bob,” says Annie, “how’s that sound to you?"
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