“End joor boolls, Meester Crème, joo notice dey move tree or more time chevri day, stoff like dat?”
I gulped my customary litre of air before bungee-jumping out the reply. “Well, perdón, but actually, er, no lo sé, er, I don’t really notice when. They are just there, really…all the time. Are they, I mean, is it…er… important?”
When your foreign language skills are not quite honed, your initial encounter with what are everyday, non-threatening situations back home can take on a whole new startling aspect once you are faced with the inevitable. At such crucial times, you cannot rely on sign language and/or sound effects to get you through. Ironically, if the interlocutor’s own grasp of your language is somewhat precariously based on spasmodic attendances at medical conferences in the USA, and he or she is doggedly determined to wow you by sprinkling the conversation with lubricators come what may, it can make matters far worse. Be it that first visit to the hairdresser’s where styles have to be discussed, the first description at the butcher’s when cuts of meat must be ordered, or that first visit to the doctor’s where symptoms are related – sooner or later, you’ll get the call. Mine came at about half-past one in the morning – and on three consecutive mornings.
The toilet – those of a nervous disposition might like to skip the next two paragraphs – in the “Pensión Los Girasoles” was on the ground floor. Nowt too inconvenient there, you might think. However, I was on the third and, to put it nicely, at times like these, an extra G-force clicked in at each landing and, well, the faster I ran, the faster it ran. But the obstacle race did not end there. To make matters worse, on my way down, I had to pass most of the fellow-lodgers’ rooms. As you may now have worked out, they are a jolly bunch of Spanish revellers and 1.30 in the morning in the middle of August here corresponds to about 1300 GMT. It is far too early and hot to kip down. Hence, most doors to the bedsits are open to ventilate rooms and enable the free flow of visitors. I, however, had quite different ventilation and flow to cater for.
I had already discovered on an earlier mishap in the toilet that there was no permanent supply of what an Icelandic student once translated in her composition as “anal blotter”. Perfumed toilet paper had just arrived in Spain, and it seemed everyone wanted to turn the wiping of their rear into an aesthetic experience. Purple forest-fruits roll in hand, trailing a subtle waft of spruce and wild berry behind me, I could hardly disguise the reason for my descent. I turned the corner at the second floor to find Paco, the travelling insurance agent, desperate to break into world futures, reading through his latest copy of The Economist, a subscription to which he had acquired on the basis of my advice to him to widen his vocabulary. Now, at every opportunity, he’d try to impress me with his new insights into the lexicon. I steeled myself – this time literally – for the inevitable query.
“Goonight Meester Grammar. De rest room for mens, she ees ocupated.” I sighed and hesitated just that second too long.
“Jossa minit. A qwestyin. Een Eenglish ees ‘I sink’, den past tense ‘I sank’?”
“…aaaand …’I stink’…jesserday ‘I stank’, no?”
“Er…if you say so, Paco, yes, but…tell you what…why don’t I come by tomorrow and go through the irregular verbs so…”
“No, no chere.” He licked his forefinger and picked out a dog-eared page in the “USA politics” section. “Chere it say, ‘President Cleentun winked at de bjootifool Frensh joornalist’. Now, shirly, dees shuld be ‘he wank at de…'”
Luckily, before he could finish, I heard the lock on the toilet door pushed back and I was down like a shot.
By the fourth day, I could bear it no more. I was so desperate I decided to consult the fount of all local weesdom:
“Manolo,” I pointed to my lower abdomen and groin, “have you ever had a pain here?” Manolo nodded reassuringly:
“Once, jes, I chad. But de eenk go on mah trouser orl over. Seence den chai kip dem chere,” he too pointed and patted, “in mah jackit pokit.”
Prior to my arrival in Granada, I had been in Brazil under contract to the British Council, who – bless ’em – always prepared their teachers for every eventuality, providing us with a little book of dodgy diseases and their symptoms. I now grabbed it off the bookcase and it fell open immediately at the particularly gruesome “Visual aids to diagnosis” section. I proceeded nervously to flick through the chapter with Manolo wincing and gasping at my side at the sight of every sebaceous cyst or lichen planus. Suddenly, the next page fell open ominously.
“Chapter 4. Tumours of the colon.” I gulped. Manolo goolped. Then we both leant forward and focussed on the text, my hand trembling as it approached the page. I placed my finger on the text and slowly read the sentence aloud:
“Colon cancer: often no symptoms in the early stages.” Manolo grasped my shaking finger and turned his head slowly towards me, eyes wide open in disbelief:
“Mah gorsh*, Meester Grimy. Ees iksactly what joo have got.”
At this point he swung into action. Inevitably/ominously, he did indeed know someone who could help. I paused only to check that this was, in fact, a person of a medical ilk. I was still reeling from my last despairing cry for first-aid a month back when I had asked Granada’s next ambassador to the UN if he could recommend someone who could give me something to help stop my “burning neck ache”. Upon returning from a shopping sortie next morning, outside my door, I found a long round packet with a note from Señora María del Socorro, the pensión owner, to which Manolo had clearly chipped in as translator and scribe:
Here is teen fol. Is to embrace itself around the meexture bifore cocking complitely with littel heet. ¡Que aproveche!”
Yes, don’t worry, it took me aeons to work it out, too – and I’d been teaching the guy for months. Anyway, this time the medical meeting was kosher and here I was, baring all to a stranger. The doctor now eyed me in the way doctors do when they see you have not the slightest grasp of Gray’s Anatomy and are about to trounce you with a piece of mind-blowingly obvious diagnosis. For Dr. López, boolls were not just a body part. They were the essence of life itself. He referred to them with the affection normally reserved to the things one holds most close to one. Which, in a way, I suppose they are, really.
“VERRY EEMPORTANT, Señor Crème, so verry. Never is to onderistimate the language of joor bolls, man. Joor boolls movimiento will tell joo eemeediately if joo sorta like or if joo don like.”
Well that had been my experience in life, too, I could not argue. At this point he passed me what looked suspiciously like a Dulux colour chart.
“Before joo come choomorrow, ebacuate. Den look carful at joor ebacuation and write de color for us to check eet out.”
I must have looked dazed. Here was I desperate for some jollop and this guy wants to choose wall shades.
“…and take plenny of lechers or fresh garbidge, bawld kitchen, and nottink fried in bother. And cot out de darned fried lamp.”
And he was the specialist.
*Buoyed up by a recent borderline fail in the Cambridge Preliminary English exam, Manolo had now decided to “speak more like an Eenglish peerson” and had taken to the irritating habit of exclaiming a number of “Blytonisms” at all the wrong moments. This one, he reliably informed me, was what “Meester Geebs”, a hapless character in all three series of his – as it turned out – very aptly-named “Let’s Do English” primary-school textbook used as an all-purpose phrase of surprise, given the slightest stimulus.