Road Map Tongue

Elspeth Walker

If I walk to a mirror I can see my family. From the top of my head is my mother. The swirling, curling, nest of hair that occupies more space than I can control is hers, and mine. When she gave birth to me her hormones changed, and all of a sudden her hair curled. Hormones control us both. During puberty my straight-line hair turned to a tempest of frizz each of my friends said I should change. To this day, mum and I blame each other for what could be our interchangeable wig – have you ever seen us standing next to one another?

        Next are my eyes. I honestly don’t know where they came from, but I guess my mother, father, grandma, nana, granda and granddad, and all those before. Hazel eyes with a tinge of green; not worth writing about.

        My ear is my dad’s. It took me thirteen years to notice that my right ear curved at the top, bending out a bit further than the other. I was horrified, how had this happened? The panic in my voice when I explained it to my mum was met by a placid you’ve always had it, so does your dad. I looked at him and sure enough, his unmatched ears are the genetic culprits.

        My nose slides down my face at a strong angle, rounding to a stop at the end. I never thought I had a nose that you would notice, but I do.  Each of my sisters has a varying nose, but every one is strong, a gift from my mother’s side.

        Lips – they’re larger than the rest of my family’s, but I’ve really never studied theirs. They have lips for talking, not to be stared at – the difference between family and other. Friends become family when you don’t notice lips, arms, stance etc. but on those who draw you into their bedroom, you notice it all. From lips, we move on.

        All that is left is skin. Puffy around the cheeks with a hint of bone. Thin across eyes and forehead. It is without colour. That is not to say I am invisible; I am white, but with no rosy tinge or pallor. It goes golden in the sun - to which I say thank you granda. The remainder of the time, I am the bleached spotlight in photos, the painter having forgotten to add the nuance of tones and hues to the portrait. The rest of my family develop pink, rosy flecks when it’s cold, when it’s hot, when it’s ambient. Their faces show a past life of Saxons, Vikings, Irishmen, Welshwomen, but mostly Northerners.  

        This is where, when I smile into the mirror, my family spills out – across my tongue. To quote a friend ‘peth has all the worst parts of the worst accents mashed together’. Friend could be a loose term after such a comment, but to an extent, he’s right.

Despite growing up in the East , I resolutely stuck to the words of my parents, removing every ‘R’ from ‘parth’, ‘barth’ and ‘carstle’ to their PROPER forms, as I saw it. At school I became the Northerner, ‘born in Warrington, between Manchester and Liverpool’ a line so well rehearsed it became as worn as Shakespeare’s ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’. But at home I was a ‘Softy southerner’ as mum and her family would remind us. At home, I forgot my ‘T’s’, the words ‘wa-er’, ‘bo—le’ and ‘ar-‘ staples in my vocabulary. At home we, we would only go places, never go to them, to the anger of my mother, who said the Essex border was ruining all of our languages. However, when the words turned back into Suffolk, our common greeting ‘y’ur’rite’, was met with bewilderment and ridicule.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, at home we spoke in our own code. Growing up in a family unit with only two grandparents, the immediate was all we had. This intensity created phrases and words incomprehensible to those outside, something I didn’t know until I went to university. I had always assumed they were Northern, and that was why my home friends never knew them. Saying ‘Fair game’ ‘Pain in the pinny’ or ‘sat there like piffy on a rock bun’ were not normal to everyone else. To this day we do not know what a ‘piffy’ is.

At university, I then discovered my drunken voice. Like nothing else England has ever heard before, the accent of a Northerner, Londoner, Essex and Suffolk girl merges to a sound that shocks even my closest friends. I never knew when it would strike, and still struggle to tell when I’m speaking it.

Over the years, one thing I’ve learnt is that I have an aptitude to absorb the sounds of those around me. I have never lived in London, Liverpool or Ireland, yet I can say choice words so convincingly it confuses me on occasion.

When I smile in the mirror, I see my roots. I see the faint pink muscle behind my teeth, the road map of all the places I’ve been to and all the people I’ve met. Though, if lost, it couldn’t tell you where to send me back to, unless you could split me across this country. As if it had ears and a tape recorder of its own, my tongue and its words are what make me striking. Far more striking than my hair.


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