Monday, 19 July 2010

Traffic Jam

You arrive over two hours late. She smiles, she is tired and irritated obviously, but she smiles which makes you feel a little easier. The last one didn’t smile, she shouted. Even though the words were unintelligible you understood the meaning: you were too slow, the way you carried her possessions was unacceptable, she resented you being in her country even as she was paying you to do things she couldn’t possibly achieve on her own. But this one smiles and after her possessions are loaded into the back you sit, close pressed together in the front, Mehmet driving, you in the middle and next to you the woman, so close you can smell her sunscreen and see it, oily on her forearm. In the heat you take pains to avoid contact but even so it is a comfortable journey; she makes conversation, and Mehmet replies and you can almost follow. She asks your name and repeats a mangled form of it back to you, you shake hands and she smiles. The traffic is terrible as it has been all afternoon. Even if you hadn’t left some boxes behind at the old lady’s house that morning you would still have been late for this appointment because of the roads. As you sit, stationary, in silence now, you try to think what you would say to her; if language was no barrier what you would talk about, but you can’t think where you would begin. There are wider barriers than language, barriers of culture, of experience, of understanding. What would you have in common with a girl who belongs so totally to a country you still find, nine years later, bewildering? Mehmet takes a wrong turn and the satellite navigation directs you back on yourselves. You rejoin the traffic jam 500 meters back from where he made the error. Still she smiles; there is an edge behind it but she smiles. Fifteen minutes later and finally on the right road you try: ‘This is Streatham?’ you begin. She smiles, apologises, shakes her head. You try again and her eyes begin to register panic, again and she begins to repeat your words back to you, attempting to wrangle them into English. Several suggestions and repetitions later she gets it: ‘yes this is Streatham’. You smile and nod at each other and you don’t know whether to feel triumphant or defeated.

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