The first thing I noticed about her were the dark pouches under her equally dark
eyes. Actually, that’s not true: the first thing I noticed about her was her skin colour, a
colour not usually seen in Bulgarian language classes. My first reaction was Finally,
after 8 years in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I have a Roma lady in my class. I’m
suspicious of my own interest in the Roma. Is it an orientalist collecting of exotica,
slightly voyeuristic, or is it a real sympathy with the underdog, the stubborn survivor
on the physical and social edges of cities?
Anyway, she would turn out not to be of that race at all: she had joked about this
herself some weeks later, well knowing people’s presuppositions. Her complexion
was dark walnut (and not only the complexion: life had somehow been harsh on her
skin, drying it, lining it, making it like a parchment map of tiredness, of the pull of
gravity and time on the human face).
She was wearing a smart, brand-new looking, light grey suit with a skirt, but the suit
couldn’t hide her discomfort. She shuffled at the back of the cramped room with rows
of unpromising immovable desks, emitting gruff nicotine-sanded five-syllabled
complaints about the terror of a first English class, directed at everyone and no one.
She didn’t get a reply. People were busy with their own slight embarrassment. She
stood out a mile. I immediately felt slightly protective: I would probably have felt the
same way myself coming into a busy group of expectant strangers and with the
prospect of being deprived of the safety net of your own language, and I was
internally going through something similar. Trying to be breezy, welcoming and
vaguely competent-looking whilst inwardly cringing with that familiar fear of Will they
like me? Am I any good? What are they really looking for here? She sat at the back,
protecting her shyness by hunching in and letting her black bushy hair with one or
two white streaks be a dark cloud of vague unresponsiveness around her.
We started the lesson with the usual cheesy getting to know each other routines. It
wasn’t that she didn’t attempt communication or avoid eye-contact: she clearly and
deliberately apologised to me and the other students, raising her tarred voice from
the back of the class and politely, firmly insisted that she just wanted to listen, which
I nodded consentingly to, although it made me vaguely uneasy. After all, she had
refused to pay tribute to the great God of Pairwork, one of the seven pillars of
Communicative Language Teaching. What if the other students opted out of our jolly
fiction of amiable sociability and fake phatic communion? I’d be left making small talk
myself, as sometimes happened, and I had long since discovered that I was
particularly dreadful at small-talk, turning into a simpering, faltering sycophant, like
an apprentice undertaker who just realises he’s got the coffins all mixed up on his
third day at work.
I had discovered I had the unfortunate knack, disastrous to a teacher, of showing
outwardly when I felt what I was saying was hollow, or just playing for time, or just
pedagogically pointless. That I wasn’t really interested in what they had done at the
weekend. Or that I was interested but that I knew it was getting them nowhere to talk
about it. That asking them what they would do if they won the lottery was not going
to help them with anything at all, including their knowledge of English, but was just a
prelude to some tired old grammar exercises. In such cases, I could hear my words
echoing around the communicative vacuum, bouncing gently round my rib-cage
before sinking meekly into the pit of my stomach.
She was always polite, though still clearly writhing with discomfort and self-reproach,
and the other students got used to her asking every time to be a silent witness to
their dry-run conversations. It would often mean the person sitting next to her
working with the people in the next row, with someone having to turn round a bit
uncomfortably in the minimal space between the desks. But we managed and her
silence was vaguely benevolent, never eye-rolling in disapproval like some of the
more active silences I had grown used to.
Then one day the power went off. This was not such a frequent occurrence: this was
modern Sofia after all, three quarters into the upwardly mobile capitalist West by
This time she was the first to speak while others coughed interrogatively towards the
unexpected blackness. Darkness, she said, was her element. Nights, night shifts at
the television studio where she worked as an engineer, a job she loved. Why they
needed to stay there all night I didn’t understand. Did they record at night? Or was it
editing? Maintenance? Maybe there were day shifts too, but it was the nights she
talked about. Years of nights. You could hear the tiredness of all those years. She
couldn’t sleep during the day you see. She lived with her sister. Neither were
She knew German, had learnt it in her youth. Now everyone wanted English. She
worried about losing the job she loved. Her sister and her job: that was all she had.
Her English was good enough. Another barrier, not the language barrier, was at work
in the class with the lights on. I listened. We all listened, as if there was nothing more
natural in the world than listening to this voice sketching the boundaries of a whole
life on the darkness.
I can’t remember the rest of the lesson: the lights must have come back on, she
must have slid back into her black cloud of tired vagueness and evasion. The course
must have continued with the usual awkward pleasantries, the occasional twenty
seconds of collective mirth, the frequent twenty minutes of time trudging towards the
classroom door and release.
Later I thought: ironic really—such deep reticence in the service of the least reticent
of media. I had been glad of that power-cut though. Somehow it had lifted the threat
in that heavy cloud of non-participation. How rarely we describe our whole lives in
such brief completeness as she had done in that handful of unlit minutes. We always
acted a little like the ones she worked for on the other side of the studio glass.
Studied naturalness. Talking but watching ourselves talk too. Listening but feeling
the quote-marks around our listening too.
I’ve had many well-lit hours in the classroom since then, but none have stuck with
me like those minutes of darkness. Maybe one day I’d have my own moments with
the lights off like that. And I’d start to tell my story, from the front of the class,
weighing the simple words with my tiredness. No attempt to entertain, no plea for
pity, no bid for approval, just telling.
Ironic really: my deep reticence in the service of a profession which is at best,
uncomfortable with reticence. My private darkness unwelcome somehow in the
cheerily flickering strip-lights of the classroom.