A Visit To Babel

Arrived at a hospital in London today for an annual cancer follow up, beginning with a blood test. All the staff in the phlebotomy clinic were Asian. The man dealing with me was very brusque, not unkind but just lacking any courteous language, like ‘please’ or ‘would you mind,’ and he called me ‘Dear.’

While I was sitting waiting for the puncture in my arm a well dressed, middle-aged Chinese looking woman came in. It quickly became apparent to everyone that she didn’t have enough English to give her date of birth. The young Asian nurse patiently tried again and again to get her to understand that they needed it. Eventually she did cotton on, but could not give the name of the month. From looking at the screen they decided they could determine who she was by a day and year and something approximating her name. She did not have to produce any ID. It was as casual as a scene from an NHS information film of the 1950s, the sort that used to star Barbara Mullen. Except I was the only English person in it.

Outside the hospital I asked a bus driver if his vehicle went to Shepherd’s Bush. He didn’t understand me. ’74’ he repeated several times. As his bus drove away I looked at the notices on the bus-stop and saw that his bus did indeed go to Shepherd’s Bush.

When I arrived at the overland station I ran up the stairs and down onto the platform to where a train waited with its doors closed. They wouldn’t open for us and I called to the guard who was still on the platform, but he looked blank and uncomprehending. A woman and I stood disconsolately for a minute before the locked train left without us. Then I realised that it was the wrong train for me anyway. I could have ended up in Corydon. ‘Good job I didn’t take that one,’ I said to the woman beside me. She smiled and waved her hand to indicate that she couldn’t understand what I was saying.

I left Babel a few hours later, crossing the border formed by the M25 back into England again. No documents were produced or questions about my nationality asked as we crawled slowly through clogging traffic, but no matter how tedious the journey it’s always something of a relief to get back to your own country to hear again the lilting sound of English again, from the mouths of native speakers.

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