The Language Barrier


On his way back from the office, Donald Davenport called his wife Martha at home from the phone booth that stood outside The Small Theatre off Franklyn Street. Next Tuesday, there would be a performance of The Clock in the Sky, a new play that had recently been written up in a reliable newspaper. After speaking to Martha, Donald hung up and entered though the old revolving doors of the theatre. The familiar rustic interior, the smoke stained walls displaying posters of up-and-coming shows, the gleaming marble floor, and the usual staff whom Donald knew well were inside. Shaking off the dampness from the late evening drizzle, Donald made his way over to the ticket office. Jane the ticket attendant smiled from over her typewriter as Donald approached.

“Good evening Mr. Davenport,”Jane said as she finished tapping away.

“Good evening Jane, dreadful weather we’re having tonight,”Donald said while wiping his forehead with a kerchief.

Jane cocked her head to the left as if she had misheard him. “Excuse me, sir?” “I said good evening Jane, awful weather. I’m sopping wet.”

Jane looked at Donald like he’d just walked in from another planet.

“I’m sorry Mr. Davenport. I have no idea what you’re saying to me.”

He paused for a moment thinking maybe small talk was not the order of the day.

“Ok, two tickets for next Tuesday’s performance of Clock in the Sky please.”

Jane again looked baffled.

“Just talk real slow and I might be able to understand you.” Donald had no idea what the hell was going on. He was speaking as plain as he possibly could speak.

“Ok, two tickets please, thank you.”

Jane shook her head.

“I’m really sorry; I’ll get the manager. Just wait here.”

Jane jumped up from her seat and went into the back. Donald stood at the desk confused and ever so slightly annoyed. He had not one hour ago delivered a fascinating proposal to his team at work and knew from their stunned faces that he was an accomplished communicator.

The theatre’s manger, Mr. Reed came out from the back and smiled.

“Mr. Davenport, right?,” Mr. Reed said while extending his hand. Donald had met Mr. Reed numerous times at exclusive after show parties. Donald met his hand halfway and shook it.

“That’s right.”

Mr. Reed’s smile dropped off his face; he looked confused.

“Mr. Davenport, why are you talking like that? We can’t understand you.”

“Talking like what?”

“Come on stop kidding around; if you’re learning a new language that’s excellent, but please don’t tease us.”

“Learning a new language! I’m not learning a new anything. I just want two tickets.” Mr. Reed turned to Jane.

“Ok something’s not right; get his mailing file up here.” Jane rummaged in the top drawer of the ticket desk and pulled out Donald’s mailing and membership form.

“Ok Mr. Davenport, game’s up. You’re from Delaware. They speak perfect English in Delaware—nice try.” Mr. Reed laughed.

“I’m speaking perfect English right now!”

“Come on Mr. Davenport, we don’t really have time for this game of cards anymore. Our next show is in half an hour. We have to get cleaned up and everything.”

Donald demanded. “Listen to me carefully. I want two tickets for Clock in the Sky for next Tuesday.” Mr. Reed sighed and shook his head.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Donald snatched a pen from Jane and scrawled his request on a fresh membership form. He handed it over to Mr. Reed.

“I don’t know what this means.” He showed it to Jane, “Any ideas?”

“It’s not English.”

Davenport snatched the note back from Jane and read it aloud.

“Two tickets for Clock in the Sky.

“I’m getting bored of this,” Mr. Reed said.

“That makes two of us,” Jane replied.

“Yeah I’m pretty fucking bored too,” Donald shouted as he slammed his fist down on the desk.

“Ok, go get Nelson; he speaks five languages, maybe we’ll get lucky,” Mr. Reed said.

Jane got up and again went out the back. Neither Davenport nor Mr. Reed spoke whilst Jane was out back looking for Nelson; they just eyed each other. Jane returned with Nelson a few moments later.

“Hi Mr. Davenport.” Donald had met and spoke with Nelson many times after a good show. Nelson was the head bartender and a very well travelled young man.

“So learning a new language then? Ok try me.”

Donald sighed and spoke again.

“Nelson, I want two tickets for next Tuesday’s showing of Clock in the Sky. God help me that is all I want.”

Nelson listened carefully, chewing the words silently in his mouth, but after a few moments, he shook his head.

“I’ve no idea what he said.”

“Fucking hell!!!” Davenport exploded in rage.

“What about this?” Mr. Reed showed Nelson the form with the scrawled note.

“Not a clue, it looks like Russian or Chinese; I think it is gibberish whatever it is.”

“I’ve had enough,” Mr. Reed announced abruptly. “Mr. Davenport, you are wasting our time; either you speak in plain English, or we’ll have to ask you to leave the premises.”

“I’m not leaving without my fucking tickets!”

“Whatever he’s saying, he’s pretty mad about it,” Nelson said.

“Of course I’m mad; I’m talking to complete morons, absolute fuckwits, no better than apes!”

“Ok it’s time to leave, Mr. Davenport,” Mr. Reed demanded. He moved from behind the desk and grabbed Donald’s arm. Nelson moved around to help. They both grabbed an arm and dragged him towards the old revolving doors.

“This is an outrage. I’m gonna write to the paper about this. You’ll be hearing from me. I‘ll ruin you, you hear me? I’ll sue.”

“Whatever you’re saying Mr. Davenport, I frankly don’t care. I’d prefer you keep away from this theatre for at least a month, or I’ll call the police next time.”

Mr. Reed and Nelson tossed Donald through the doors back out into the rain, which had changed from a light drizzle to a wild downpour.

“You bastards! I’ll be writing to the paper about this. See if I don’t!”

Nelson threw Donald’s briefcase out onto the sidewalk and dusted his hands off.

“Fuckers! You’d have to pay me to come back in there.”

Donald picked up the briefcase and rattled around in his coat pockets for some loose change. He found a couple of quarters and took shelter in the nearby phone booth. He potted the coins in the slot and dialed his home number again. The line rang a few times before his wife Martha answered.

“Hello the Davenport residence, Martha Davenport speaking.”

“Darling you won’t believe what happened to me. I went to get us those tickets for Clock in the Sky. The bastards pretended I was speaking another language. They fucking had the God-given nerve to stand there and pretend to not understand me…”

“Excuse me,” came the voice on the other end cutting Donald off. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve got the wrong number.”

Donald wiped his wet face with his sleeve and rubbed his temple; he closed his eyes tightly, tighter than ever. He let out a huge exhaustive breath.

“Martha, it’s me honey; it’s Donald, Donald Davenport, your husband.” There was only a moment’s pause on the other end.

“Hello, yes I’m sorry, but you’ve dialed America; you‘ve come through to the United States of America; you’ve got the wrong number I’m afraid. I don’t speak your language.”

Donald Davenport rubbed his eyes, which were now filling with tears and took a deep breath. With his throat choked up and taut, he tried to push his meek voice out.

“Martha, it’s me; it’s Donald…it’s…” He began to sob, no longer able to speak.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t understand you; I don’t speak your language. I’m very sorry. I’m putting the phone down now. Goodbye.”

The phone clicked off leaving Donald Davenport alone in the phone booth. He slowly crumbled to the ground. He curled up in a fetal position, the only way to lie down inside the tight confines of a phone booth. He felt his body convulse as he broke down into uncontrollable tears. What did it all mean? Why was he no longer understood? What would become of his life? He let out a whimpering whisper, barely able to break out of his dry and tight throat.

“чому, чомумене.”

His tears mixed with the rain.

Stephen Lee Naish’s writing has appeared in The Quietus, Everyday Analysis, Empty Mirror, Gadfly, Scholardarity, and many other publications. His first book, U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film was published by Zer0 books. He lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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