The only sound in the room is her breathing. Even the blackbird on the garden shed is quiet. Every breath is an effort, a rasping, open-mouthed intake of air into her nine decades old body, prone on the bed. She hasn’t talked to me for days. At night, she wakes mumbling and delirious, trying to get out of bed, even though she wouldn’t have the strength to stand. The doctor says this is common amongst patients with a failing heart.
It dawns on me that we won’t be talking again, ever. That chance for conversations, questions, anecdotes and humour has passed. I’ve returned to her city, but I’ll never again hear her lilting intonations, so particular to this part of Kent. It’s an accent I grew up hearing, not only from mum, but from my uncle and aunts, neighbours, shopkeepers, stall holders, the foremen in the strawberry fields or the hop sheds where I worked during the school summer holidays. It is a vernacular I never really noticed until after I’d moved away to Australia and found myself in a place of unfamiliar sounds.
She stirs from her slumber and briefly opens her eyes. I hold a child’s ‘sippy’ cup to her lips and offer her a drink of water. Mum swallows the smallest amount before turning her head away. I want to believe she’s aware of my presence, but no verbal acknowledgement is possible. I notice the blackbird has gone.
Mum was born in Canterbury in the south east of England, a city known for religion and farming, markets and history, with its Roman ruins, medieval city walls, Tudor buildings and Georgian gardens. Above every structure, Canterbury Cathedral towers with Gothic dominance in the heart of the city. She’s spent most of her life here; she can trace her maiden name back five hundred years—a native in the true sense of the word. Her voice used to fashion tales from the past, superstitions, scolds and humour, all in her Kentish lilt. I didn’t realise it at the time, but these were more than mere words, they were a window into how she lived in the world. I’m only just beginning to understand this, so late in my own life, and so close to the end of hers.
It’s hard to write down an accent; perhaps if I was a linguist, I’d have the tools to make marks on paper or screen that would capture her sounds. I only have remembered phrases to remind me, but as bare words on the page they can’t capture the twinkle in her eye, the laugh or scold in her voice.
Is that the time? Better get on.
No new shoes on the table!
Least said, soonest mended
Scared the living daylights out of me
He’s been long gone
There are others hiding within the weft and weave of the worn fabric of my memory. I’m only now beginning to see how language reflected her understanding of life, one where fate played a role, where luck can be helped along by an appropriate phrase, or throwing salt over a shoulder, or observing small rituals and superstitions. It’s a way of knowing the world that stretches back to a past connected to witches tied to the ducking stool next to the Old Weaver’s House, to Protestants burned in Martyrs’ Field, or the faithful with their vows and sore feet making their daily progress along The Pilgrims’ Way.
When I write, I catch myself phrasing a sentence in her ancient way, and I stop. I now have a choice, a decision to make. She doesn’t belong in this time anymore; her words are unfamiliar and awkward. Will a reader accept these idiosyncrasies, or stumble on their unfamiliarity? Am I too sensitive to the sounds of words having long been defined by my voice? I was one of those working-class kids who tried to fit in with my middle-class grammar school friends by modifying my accent. I continued this deception as an actor, learning the required neutral accent and the range of local ones I could proclaim on my resume.
Living in Perth, I’m still marked by how I sound. Although I’m more competent with Australian vowels and vernacular, I’m still set apart, limited in what roles I’m allowed to perform, how I’m seen, which stereotypes are applied. I’ve never been heard as a native voice. Perhaps I should have persisted with one voice, one accent, one dialect like my mother did. Instead, I’ve allowed myself to be swept along on any current that seemed to be heading in the direction I thought I should go.
In some ways my English accent betrays another part of my heritage. As I sit with my mother, my father looks down on us from the photograph on the mantlepiece. He’s young and handsome with brown skin, black hair, and deep, dark eyes that are always smiling. Like me, he chose migration, and his South Indian English is a distant echo in my childhood only accessible to me now in my faraway cousins’ voices. I’ve inherited some of his features, and so many times I’ve been greeted with the question, “Where are you from?” If I answer Canterbury, they follow up with, “No, where are you really from?” My father was lost to us before I could really answer that question, nor understand how a face or a voice is a marker of how others see us, perhaps how they want us to be.
Mum drifts into a snuffling sleep, one interrupted by mumbles and whispers. I strain to make sense of even only a single word, but I know that time has passed. I find myself wondering if I could return to the voice of my childhood, the one unadulterated by the bumps and bruises I’ve encountered along the way? Will it unlock that sense of an authentic self? My struggle’s not unique. The world expects us more and more to perform our lives, to attain status through surfaces and reflections. I’ve not honoured the language, accent, or voice of my mother, nor of my father, and both are becoming lost to me. Sound is so intangible; a wave of energy, so never lost, but never really held.
Like a favourite piece of fabric, or a watercolour left in the sun, the colours of mum’s voice have faded. Perhaps that’s how it’s always meant to be with the voices of mothers, as no doubt, one day, mine will also fade. But at least the blackbird is back, his bright chirruping chases away the silence in the room as he flits about on the garden shed.
As a playwright, story writer and poet, Vivienne Glance’s work has been published and presented in Australia and internationally. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia where she is an Honorary Research Fellow. Her interests particularly lie at the intersection of science and art, environmental sustainability and cultural diversity.