I wrote a first draft of this entry eight months ago, but have only just found the right way to phrase it…
There’s a woman who sells The Big Issue outside a supermarket near where I live. She’s foreign – possibly Eastern European, of indeterminate age – somewhere between nineteen and forty, and possesses a poor grasp of the English language. She’s always cheery, and (from what I can tell) the shoppers are fairly generous with their money / food / drink.
Any time that I buy a magazine from her I go away thinking: £2:50. That’s a piss poor donation for an IT professional. You’re barely poking your (ex-Catholic) guilt in the ribs, let alone appeasing it. You should do something more.
I will, I think, then don’t.
But then one day I have an idea – I’ll teach her English.
At first I wonder whether it might be a little condescending, but then think better of it. Teach a man to fish and all that…
I’m in-between contracts at the time. If she’s interested I can dedicate some quality effort. It could even be fun.
Striking up a conversation with her one morning I find out her name, which country she’s from and that she would like to work in a coffeehouse. The exchange of information is very difficult, but she understands my offer and accepts. Having confirmed that she has access to a phone I give her my number and say goodbye.
She never calls.
Two months pass.
I am walking in town when I feel a tap on my shoulder.
‘Your number,’ she says, ‘I loose.’
‘Shall I give it you again?’
‘No – I meet here.’
‘Two, Friday – after – next.’
In the intervening nine days two things happen. The first is that I panic about having no teaching skills. This is quickly solved by a (sadly deceased) linguist called Michel Thomas who wrote a series of audio programmes on how to speak various other languages. He believed in building up the complexity of everyday conversation rather than getting bogged down in grammar tables: e.g. ‘I have a car – I have a blue car – I have a dented blue car – I have a blue car that my brother borrowed and dented – I have a black eye on account of my asshole brother etc…’
I can do that!
The second thing is that I meet a friend who runs a church coffee bar.
‘Would you consider giving a job to a homeless woman?’
‘In principle yes – provided they’re relatively presentable.’
No, I think , but easily fixable. ‘So, if I give you semi-reguar updates and come back here in a could of months with a semi-fluent barista you’ll give her paid work?’
‘In principle yes.’
Fantastic, I think. How often in life does the solution to a problem reveal itself in such a perfect straight line
Nine days later I arrive, armed with an approach and a solid job prospect a little way down the line.
‘You cannot teach me,’ she says. ‘I ask mother – she say no – two brothers – very dangerous – we meet – they kill you.’
I question the statement as best I can. There is no imminent threat, more a standing promise of violence based on certain thresholds being infringed. I also discover that a man married her against her will at the age of thirteen and, four kids later, she has had the courage to leave him, but is subsequently vilified by both her family and his.
‘What would you like?’ I ask.
‘My want – not matter.’
So we come to it – the minefield. Having had eight months to ruminate I’m inclined to stumble out and set off all the charges simultaneously…
…I’m all for freedom of religion (some of my best gays are black), and I have a faith of sorts myself), but forcing it upon others is tyranny. Strangely, in the moment I find myself stumbling over my own political correctness and worrying about sounding phobic, when I should be thinking ‘Who do hell do your brothers think they are? Can they read and write? This is England. We encourage learning here. You have the right to do so (and, come to think of it – I have the right to teach you without fear of violent reproach).
‘Why can you sell the big issue, but not work in a shop? You would earn more. You’d be warmer and safer.’
‘This,’ she points to the street, ‘arms away – no speak with men – shop – speak all time.’
‘Is it because I’m a man. How about if I found a woman to teach you?’
I try to explain that this is a wondrous opportunity, but ‘opportunity’ as it turns out is a difficult word to explain without an education…