Thursday, April 17, 2008

No is Yes

The question is: did the girl kill her own father?

Some say yes and some say no.

Linda doesn't look like a murderess.

She walks calmly up the steps of the high school stage. She shakes the mayor's hand and receives her award. Top of the school. She moves over to the microphone to make her speech of acceptance. She is seventeen, beautiful and in love. Her words are delicate, musical crystals falling upon receptive ears. The crowd rewards her clarity with loud applause but it passes her by. She is seeking a face among the visitors in the front row. She finds what she is looking for and her eyes meet those of a young man. They both smile.

He knows the answer.

'It's finally finished,' said Dr Scrape. 'After fourteen years of research it is finished.' He tapped the thick manuscript on the table. 'And you, Ralph, will be the first to see the results.'

They were sitting in the lounge watching the sun lower itself once more into the grave of another day.

Ralph didn't seem quite sure what to say. He was unsure of himself. In the end he came out with. 'Fourteen years is a lot of work. What's it all about?'

Dr Scrape stroked his pointed little beard and leaned across the coffee table. 'Tell me,' he said, 'as a layman, how did you learn to speak? How did you learn the words and grammar of the English language?'

'Give us a go,' said Ralph good naturedly. 'I haven't had an education like you. I haven't been to university. I didn't even finish high school. I don't know about stuff like that. You're the one with all the brains. You tell me. How did I learn to speak?'

When Ralph said, 'You're the one with all the brains,' Dr Scrape smiled to himself and nodded wisely. 'Have a guess then,' he insisted.

'Me mother. Me mother taught me to talk.'


'Me father then.'


'Then who?' asked Ralph with a tinge of annoyance.

'Nobody taught you,' exclaimed Dr Scrape. 'Nobody teaches children to talk. They just learn it by listening. If the baby is in China it will learn Chinese because that's what it hears. If you get a new-born Chinese baby and bring it here it will learn to speak English not Chinese. Just by listening to those around it.'

'What's that got to do with your re ...?' began Ralph. But he stopped. Dr Scrape's daughter entered the room with a tray. She was a delicate, pale girl of about fourteen. Her face reminded Ralph of a porcelain doll. He was struck by both her beauty and her shyness.

'This is my daughter, Linda,' said Dr Scrape with a flourish.

'G'day,' said Ralph awkwardly.

'And this is Mr Pickering.'

She made no reply at first but simply stood there staring at him as if he were a creature from another planet. He felt like some exotic animal in the zoo which was of total fascination to someone on the other side of the bars.

Dr Scrape frowned and the girl suddenly remembered her manners.

'How do you do?' she said awkwardly. 'Would you like some coffee?'

'Thanks a lot,' said Ralph.

'White or black?'

'Black, thanks.'

Linda raised an eyebrow at her father. 'The usual for me,' he said with a smirk. Ralph Pickering watched as Linda poured two cups of tea and put milk into both of them. She looked up, smiled and handed him one of the cups.

'Thanks a lot,' he said again.

'Salt?' she asked, proferring a bowl filled with white crystals.

Ralph looked at the bowl with a red face. He felt uncomfortable in this elegant house. He didn't know the right way to act. He didn't have the right manners. He didn't know why he had been asked in for a cup of coffee. He was just the apprentice plumber here to fix the drains. He looked down at his grubby overalls and mud-encrusted shoes.

'Er, eh?' said Ralph.

'Salt?' she asked again holding out the bowl.

Ralph shook his head with embarrassment. Did they really have salt in their tea? He sipped from the delicate china cup. He liked coffee, black and with sugar, in a nice big mug. Somehow he had ended up with white tea, no sugar and a fragile cup which rattled in his big hands.

He had the feeling, though, that Linda had not meant to embarrass him. If there was any malevolence it came from Dr Scrape who was grinning hugely at Ralph's discomfort.

Ralph Pickering scratched his head with his broken fingernails.

The young girl looked at her watch. 'Will you be staying for breakfast?' she asked Ralph kindly. 'We are having roast pork. It's nearly washed.'

'N-n-no thanks,' he stumbled. 'My mum is expecting me home for tea. I couldn't stay the night.' He noticed a puzzled expression on her face and she shook her head as if not quite understanding him. The oddest feeling came over him that she thought he was a bit mad.

Ralph moved as if to stand up.

'Don't go yet,' said Dr Scrape. 'I haven't finished telling you about my research. Although you have already seen some of it.' He nodded towards his daughter who had gone into the kitchen and could be heard preparing the pork for the evening meal. 'Now where were we?' he went on. 'Ah yes. About learning to speak. So you see, my dear boy, we learn to speak just from hearing those around us talking.' He was waving his hands around as if delivering a lecture to a large audience. His eyes lit up with excitement. 'But ask yourself this. What if a child was born and never heard anyone speak except on the television? Never ever saw a real human being, only the television? Would the television do just as well as live people? Could they learn to talk then?'

He paused, not really expecting Ralph to say anything. Then he answered his own question. 'No one knows,' he exclaimed thrusting a finger into the air. 'It's never been done.'

'It would be cruel,' said Ralph, suddenly forgetting his shyness. 'You couldn't bring up a child who had never heard anyone speak. It'd be a dirty trick. That's why it's never been done.'

'Right,' yelled Dr Scrape. His little beard was waggling away as he spoke. 'So I did the next best thing. I never let her hear anybody speak except me.'

He nodded towards the kitchen.

'You mean ... ' began Ralph.

'Yes, yes. Linda. My daughter. She has never heard anyone in the world speak except me. You are the first person apart from me she has ever spoken to.'

'You mean she has never been to school'


'Or kindergarten?'

'No.' 'Or shopping or to the beach?'

'No, she's never been out of this house.'

'But why?' asked Ralph angrily. 'What for?'

'It's an experiment, boy. She has learned a lot of words incorrectly. Just by listening to me use the wrong words. All without a single lesson. I call "up" "down" and "down" "up". I call "sugar" "salt". "Yes" is "no" and "no is yes". It's been going on ever since she was a baby. I have taught her thousands of words incorrectly. She thinks that room in there is called the laundry,' he yelled pointing to the kitchen. 'I have let her watch television every day and all day but it makes no difference. She can't get it right.'

He picked up a spoon and chuckled. 'She calls this a carpet. And this,' he said holding up a fork, 'she calls a chicken. Even when she sees a chicken on television she doesn't wake up. She doesn't change. She doesn't notice it. It proves my hypothesis: point that is,' he added for the benefit of Ralph whom he considered to be an idiot. 'So you see, I have made a big breakthrough. I have proved that humans can't learn to speak properly from listening to television. Real people are needed.'

'You know something,' said Ralph slowly. 'If this is true, if you have really taught the poor kid all the wrong words ... '

Dr Scrape interrupted. 'Of course it's true. Of course it's true.' He took out a worn exercise book and flipped over the pages. 'Here they are. -Over two thousand words - all learned incorrectly. Usually the opposites. Whenever I talk with Linda I use these words. She doesn't know the difference. Dog is cat, tree is lamp post, ant is elephant and just for fun girl is boy -- she calls herself a boy although of course she knows she is the opposite sex to you. She would call you a girl.' He gave a low, devilish laugh.

Ralph's anger had completely swamped his shyness and his feeling of awkwardness caused by the splendour of the mansion. 'You are a dirty mongrel,' he said quietly. The poor thing has never met another person but you - and what a low specimen you are. And you've mixed her all up. How is she going to get on in the real world?'

'You mean in on the real world, not on in the real world,' he smirked. Then he began to laugh. He thought it was a great joke. 'You'll have to get used to it,' he said. 'When you talk to her you'll have to get used to everything being back to front.'

'What's it got to do with me?'

'Why, I want you to try her out. Talk to her. See how she goes. Before I give my paper and show her to the world I want to make sure that it lasts. That she won't break down and start speaking correctly with strangers. I want you to be the first test. I want a common working man ... boy,' he corrected. 'One who can't pull any linguistic tricks.'

'Leave me out of it,' said Ralph forcefully. 'I don't want any part of it. It's cruel and, and,' he searched around for a word. 'Rotten,' he spat out.

Scrape grabbed his arm and spun him round. He was dribbling with false sincerity. 'But if you really care, if you really care about her you will try to help. Go on,' he said pushing Ralph towards the kitchen. 'Tell her what a despicable creature I am. Tell her the difference between salt and sugar. Set her straight. That's the least you can do. Or don't you care at all?'

He narrowed his eyes.

Ralph pushed him off and strode towards the kitchen. Then he stopped and addressed Scrape who had been following enthusiastically. 'You don't come then. I talk to her alone. Just me and her.'

The little man stroked his beard thoughtfully.. 'A good idea,' he said finally. 'A good idea. They will want an independent trial. They might think I am signalling her. A good thought, boy. But I will be close by. I will be in here, in the library. She calls it the toilet,' he added gleefully. Then he burst into a sleazy cackle.

Ralph gave him a look of disgust and then turned and pushed into the kitchen.

Linda turned round from where she was washing the dishes and took several steps backwards. Her face was even paler than before. Ralph understood now that she was frightened of him. Finally, however, she summoned up her courage and stepped forward, holding out her hand. 'Goodbye,' she said in a shaking voice.

'Goodbye?' queried Ralph. 'You want me to go?'

'Yes,' she said, shaking her head as she spoke.

Ralph took her outstretched hand and shook it. It was not a handshake that said goodbye. It was warm and welcoming.

'Is this really the first time you have been alone with another person other than him?' asked Ralph, nodding towards the library.

'Don't call him a person,' she said with a hint of annoyance. 'We don't let persons in the laundry. Only animals are allowed here. The cats have kennels in the river.'

'You've got everything back to front,' said Ralph incredulously. 'All your words are mixed up.'

'Front to back,' she corrected, staring at him with a puzzled face. 'And you are the one with everything mixed down. You talk strangely. Are you drunk? I have heard that women behave strangely when they are drunk.'

Ralph's head began to spin. He couldn't take it all in. He didn't trust himself to speak. He remembered Dr Scrape's words, 'Dog is cat, tree is lamp post, ant is elephant, and just for fun, boy is girl.' Linda was looking at him as if he was mad. He walked over to the sink and picked up a fork. 'What's this?' he said, waving it around excitedly.

'A chicken of course,' she answered. Ralph could see by her look that she thought he was the one with the crazy speech.

'And what lays eggs and goes cluck, cluck?' He flapped his arms like wings as he said it.

The girl smiled with amusement. 'A fork. Haven't you ever seen a fork scratching for bananas?'

Ralph hung his head in his hands. 'Oh no,' he groaned. 'The swine has really mucked you up. You have got everything back to front - front to back. They don't dig for bananas. They dig for worms.' He stared at her with pity-filled eyes. She was completely confused. She was also the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He bit his knuckles and thought over the situation carefully. 'Man' was 'woman'. 'Boy' was 'girl'. 'Ceiling' was 'floor'. But some words were right. 'Him' and 'her' were both correct. Suddenly he turned and ran from the room. He returned a second later holding Dr Scrape's exercise book. He flicked wildly through the pages, groaning and shaking his head as he read.

The girl looked frightened. She held her head up like a deer sniffing the wind. 'That glass must not be read,' she whispered, looking nervously towards the library. 'None of the glasses in the toilet can be read either.'

He ignored her fear. 'Now,' he said to himself. 'Let's try again.' He held the exercise book open in one hand for reference. Then he said slowly, 'Have you ever spoken to a girl like me before?'

'Yes,' said Linda shaking her head.

Ralph sighed and then tried again. He held up the fork. 'Is this a chicken?'

'No,' she said nodding her head. Ralph could see that she was regarding him with a mixture of fear, amusement and, yes, he would say, affection. Despite her bewilderment over what she considered to be his strange speech, she liked him.

Suddenly the enormity of the crime that had been worked on this girl overwhelmed Ralph. He was filled with anger and pity. And disgust with Dr Scrape. Linda had never been to school. Never spoken to another person. Never been to the movies or a disco. For fourteen years she had spoken only to that monster Scrape. She had been a prisoner in this house. She had never been touched by another person ... never been kissed.

Their eyes met for an instant but the exchange was put to flight by the sound of coughing coming from the library.

'Quick,' said Ralph. 'There isn't much time. I want you to nod for "yes" and shake your head for "no" - drat, I mean the other way around.' He consulted the exercise book. 'I mean nod your head for "no" and shake your head for "yes".' He looked again at the book. The words were alphabetically listed. He couldn't be sure that she understood. What if the word for head was foot? Or the word for shake was dance, or something worse?

Linda paused and then nodded.

He tried again. 'Have you ever spoken to another animal except him?' he said jerking a contemptuous thumb in the direction of the library.

She shook her head sadly. It was true then. Scrape's story was true.

'Would you like to?' he asked slowly after finding that 'like' was not listed in the book.

She paused, looked a little fearful, and then keeping her eyes on his, nodded her head slowly.

'Tonight,' he whispered, and then, checking the book, 'No, today. At midnight, no sorry, midday. I will meet you. By that lamp post.' He pointed out of the window and across the rolling lawns of the mansion. 'By that lamp post. Do you understand?'

Linda followed his gaze. There was a lamp post at the far end of the driveway which could just be seen through the leaves of a large gum tree in the middle of the lawn. He took her hand. It was warm and soft and sent a current of happiness up his arm. He asked her again in a whisper. 'Do you understand?'

She nodded and for the first time he noticed a sparkle in her eyes.

'I didn't ask you to maul my son,' a voice hissed from behind them. Ralph jumped as a grip of steel took hold of his arm. Dr Scrape was incredibly strong. He dragged Ralph out of the kitchen and into the lounge. 'You stay in the laundry,' he snarled at Linda as the kitchen door swung closed in her face.

'Well, my boy,' he said with a twisted grin. 'How did it go? Could you make head or tail of what she said? Or should I say tailor head?' He licked his greasy moustache with satisfaction at his little joke.

Ralph tried to disguise the contempt he felt. 'What would happen if she mixed with people in the real world?' he asked. 'If she was to leave here and go to school? Would she learn to talk normally?'

Dr Scrape paused and looked carefully at Ralph as if reading his mind. 'Yes,' he said. 'Of course she would. She would model on the others. She would soon speak just like you I suspect. But that's not going to happen, is it?'

Ralph could contain himself no longer. 'You devil,' he yelled. 'You've mucked her up all right. She thinks I am the one who can't talk properly. She thinks I'm a bit crazy. But don't think I'm going to help you. I'll do everything I can to stop you. You're nothing but a vicious, crazy little monster.' He stood up and stormed out of the house.

Dr Scrape gave a wicked smile of satisfaction as Ralph disappeared down the long driveway.

It was thirty minutes past midnight and a few stars appeared occasionally when the drifting clouds allowed them to penetrate.

It was a different Ralph who stood waiting beneath the lamp post. Gone were the overalls, work boots and the smudged face. He wore his best jeans and his hair shone in the light of the street light. He had taken a lot of time over his appearance.

He looked anxiously at his watch and then up at the dark house. There was no sign of Linda. She was thirty minutes late. His heart sank as slowly and surely as the sun had done that evening. She wasn't coming. She had dismissed him as a funny-speaking crank. Or that evil man had guessed their plan and locked her in a room.

It began to drizzle and soon trickles of water ran down his neck. One o'clock and still no sign of her. He sighed and decided to go. There was nothing more he could do. She wasn't going to show up. The words started to keep time with his feet as he crunched homewards along the gravel road. 'Show up, show up.' Linda would have said 'show down' not 'show up'.

A bell rang in the back of his mind. A tiny, insistent bell of alarm. Once again he heard Dr Scrape speaking. 'Dog is cat, tree is lamp post, ant is .. .' Of course.

'Tree is lamp post. And therefore ... lamp post is tree.' He almost shouted the words out. She called a lamp post a tree. Linda might have been waiting beneath the gum tree in the middle of the gardens while he was waiting under the lamp post by the gate. He hardly dared hope. He ran blindly in the dark night. Several times he fell over. Once he put a hole in the knee of his jeans but he didn't give it a thought.

He knew that she would have gone. Like him she would have given up waiting and have returned to the dark house.

At last he stumbled up to the tree, finding it by its silhouette against the black sky. 'Linda,' he whispered urgently, using her name for the first time. It tasted sweet on his lips.

There was no answer.

Then, at the foot of the house, in the distance, he saw a flicker of yellow light. It looked like a candle. He saw Linda, faintly, holding the small flame. Before he could call out she opened the front door and disappeared inside.

'Damn and blast,' he said aloud. He smashed his clenched fist into the trunk of the tree in disappointment. A lump of bitter anguish welled up in his throat. He threw himself heavily down on the damp ground to wait. Perhaps she would try again. Anyway, he resolved to stay there until morning.

Inside the dark house Linda made her way back to her bedroom upstairs. Her eyes were wet with tears of rejection. The strange girl had not come. She crept silently, terrified of awaking her tormentor. Holding the forbidden candle in her left hand she tiptoed up the stairs. She held her breath as she reached the landing lest her guardian should feel its gentle breeze even from behind closed doors.

'Betrayed, betrayed,' shrieked a figure from the darkness. The candle was struck from her hand and spiralled over the handrail to the floor below. It spluttered dimly in the depths.

The dark form of Dr Scrape began slapping Linda's frail cheeks. Over and over he slapped, accompanying every blow with the same shrill word. 'Betrayed, betrayed, betrayed.'

In fear, in shock, in desperation, the girl pushed at the swaying shadow. Losing his footing, Scrape tumbled backwards, over and over, down the wooden staircase. He came to a halt halfway down and lay still.

Linda collapsed on to the top step, sobbing into her hands, not noticing the smoke swirling up from below. Then, awakened to her peril by the crackling flames that raced up the stairs, she filled her lungs with smoke-filled air, screamed and fainted dead away.

The old mansion was soon burning like a house of straws. Flames leapt from the windows and leaked from the tiles. Smoke danced before the moonless sky.

The roar of falling timber awakened Ralph from a fitful doze at the base of the tree. He ran, blindly, wildly, unthinkingly through the blazing front door and through the swirling smoke, made out Linda's crumpled form at the top of the staircase. He ran to her, jumping three steps at a time, ignoring the scorching flames and not feeling the licking pain on his legs. Staggering, grunting, breathing smoke he struggled with her limp body past the unconscious form of Dr Scrape. He paused, and saw in that second that Scrape was still breathing and that his eyes were wide and staring. He seemed unable to move. Ralph charged past him, forward, through the burning door and along the winding driveway. Only the sight of an ambulance and fire truck allowed him to let go and fall with his precious load, unconscious on the wet grass.

'Smoke inhalation,' yelled the ambulance driver.

'Get oxygen and put them both in the back.'

Linda's eyes flickered open and she stared in awe from the stretcher at the uniformed figure. Only the third person she had seen in her life. A mask was lowered over her face, but not before she had time to notice that the unconscious Ralph was breathing quietly on the stretcher next to her.

'I want to speak to her,' yelled the fire chief striding over from the flashing truck.

'No way, they are both going to hospital,' shouted the ambulance driver in answer.

The fire chief ignored the reply and tore the mask from Linda's gasping mouth. He bent close to her. 'I can't send men in there,' he yelled, pointing at the blazing house. 'Not unless there is someone inside. Is there anyone inside?'

'Mother,' whispered the girl.

The fireman looked around. 'She said mother.'

'She hasn't got a mother,' said a short bald man who had come over from the house next door. 'Her mother died when the girl was born. She only has a father. Dr Scrape.'

The fireman leaned closer. His words were urgent. 'Is your father in there, girl? Is anyone in there? The roof is about to collapse. Is anyone inside the house?'

Linda tried to make sense of his strange speech. Then a look of enlightenment swept across her face. She understood the question - that was clear. But many have wondered if she understood her own answer.

As the ambulance driver shut the door she just had time to say one word.


Paul Jennings / Thirteen Unpredictable Tales

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