The Silent Tutsi
It was only natural that Linda should be apprehensive when she met Laurent and Pauline Duquesne for the first time at the airport. What had she let herself in for? It was a necessary part of her university degree, of course: a summer in France spent with a French family where she’d have to speak French all the time. She wasn’t sure whether it was the fact she’d have to rely on her knowledge of the belle langue or her anxieties about submitting herself to the kindness of these strangers that troubled her most, but her first impressions were positive. Linda’s worries slipped away as Laurent drove them through the Picardy landscape, past the quaint cafés and rows of trees. She was gradually acclimatising to the French language, although she struggled to express herself with quite the fluency she hoped to eventually master. The couple were as fascinated about life in rural Suffolk as she was about life in small-town France. Although everything was still foreign to her, she looked forward to being as much at home here as she was to the thatched cottages and village greens of East Anglia. The couple had two young children at home waiting for them who, as soon as they saw Linda, rushed about her and plied her with questions about English roast beef and English pop music. She was overwhelmed by the whirlwind of attention that contrasted so much with the relative solitariness of her short flight from Luton Airport. There was a lot that was new and much of this Linda only knew about from the French films she’d watched. And every now and then, one of the parents or, even more so, the children used a vernacular expression Linda wasn’t sure she really understood. She unpacked and organised her possessions in the small bedroom she was given and already thought of as her own. Then she joined Laurent and Pauline, and the two children, for the evening meal. She knew food was an important ritual in French life and looked forward to the new routine. It would be so different from watching television with a tray on her lap. The family sat down together while Pauline placed the dishes on the table to appreciative grunts from her husband and children. A bottle of red wine was uncorked and Linda had a glass in front of her, as did the two children. There was a sixth glass and plate laid out and Linda wondered who this could be for. Was there a third child in the family? She was rather surprised when this sixth person appeared. She was only a couple of years younger than Linda and young enough to be one of Pauline’s children. But clearly, she was not. Her skin was black and her curly hair was cut very short. She walked into the room and was greeted with “Bonjour, Gabrielle,” by the family. Without responding with even a smile she sat down in the vacant seat. The meal was delicious. Pauline was a very good cook and had obviously made an extra effort for her new au pair. She’d remembered that Linda didn’t like broccoli and so none was placed on her plate although everyone else was offered some. Throughout the meal, Laurent and Pauline chatted to Linda, with the occasional polite interjection from Dominique and Pierre, the two children, and Linda became steadily more confident in her grasp of the French language. But during the whole meal, Gabrielle didn’t say a single word nor was it apparent that one was expected of her. When the family had finished the gateau and very strong coffee that made up the dessert, Gabrielle stood up without a word and walked out of the room as silently as she came in despite the kind words of “Au revoir” that accompanied her departure. Linda looked at Laurent. “Is Gabrielle very shy?” she asked, hoping that the word she chose had the same meaning in French as in English. “Shy?” replied Laurent. “Not shy so much. She’s severely traumatized. She hasn’t said a word in all the years since we first chose to adopt her when she was a much younger girl.” “Is that because she doesn’t speak French?” “Well, she certainly understands French. She reads enough books. But it isn’t just French she won’t elvankent escort speak. She won’t say a word even in her own Tutsi language.” “Tutsi?” wondered Linda, who was reminded of a Hollywood film with a similar sounding name. “Yes. She comes from Rwanda. In Africa. There are two tribes there: the Tutsi and the Hutu. You might be too young to remember, but a few years ago there was a horrendous massacre. Something like a million Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutu. Many of them were neighbours who’d lived next door to them all their lives.” “I’ve heard of that, I think,” said Linda. “Gabrielle was one of those who survived. It’s a wonder she wasn’t mutilated with a machete like so many others. Her parents were killed and all her family and friends. A lot of Tutsi children came up for adoption and, although we had no pressing need to adopt a daughter, we volunteered to do so. But ever since her ordeal, she’s not said a word. Of course, we don’t know what she was like before then. No one alive knows her from before that time or even knows her real name, but the doctors believe that it’s because of her traumatic experience she never speaks.” “Oh dear!” said Linda in English. She wasn’t at all sure what else she should say. There was a silence around the table. Even Dominique and Pierre looked uncomfortable. “Anyway,” said Pauline, breaking the silence, “we hope very much that you and Gabrielle get to know each other a lot better. It’s to help Gabrielle that we really wanted you to stay here. She’s a good girl, but because of her muteness she’s mostly had to be taught at home. A home tutor normally looks after her education, but that’s during term-time. We thought that you could perhaps teach her English and anything else that you’d like just to keep up her education. There are a few other au pair duties, but they’re fairly light.” “You want me to teach Gabrielle?” asked Linda who’d never thought of teaching as a career when she completed her degree. Her ambitions were to work as a translator, perhaps for the European Parliament. “It’s more to keep her company than anything else, ma petite. She’s very bright: at least a year in advance of her actual age. It’s quite possible that when she gets her baccalauréat , she’ll be able to go to university. Maybe even in Paris. I hope you don’t mind, ma chérie ?” Linda shook her head. “I’d be pleased to,” she replied, already regretting that she’d brought so few English books with her. Fortunately, Laurent and Pauline had anticipated this and had bought some English language text books, all with plenty of pictures of strangely gauche English people with names like Mary, John, Malcolm and Diane. As she was studying a foreign language herself, Linda was sure she knew what she ought to do, though she groaned at some of the rather odd cultural references in the books. Why was everyone so keen on the Beatles? And what was this obsession with English meal-times? And why did everyone have to speak in such a stilted, awkward manner? Gabrielle’s room was totally unlike that of any teenage girl’s bedroom Linda had ever seen before. There were no posters on the wall—just a framed French landscape by Corot. The room was mostly bare of anything but books, and those were the peculiar paperbacks the French liked, with boring line drawings on the cover. There were no CDs, no DVDs, no stereo system, and only a hardly-used desktop PC. Gabrielle sat stiff and expressionless on a hard chair wearing a white blouse and blue jeans, the former contrasting dramatically with the darkness of her skin. Linda drew in her breath as Pauline closed the door behind her. This was going to be more of an ordeal than she expected. How do you teach someone who won’t say a word to you? Even her smile was curiously lacking in meaning. It just flashed into life for the shortest time before vanishing behind an expression of intimidating seriousness. “My name is Linda. I come from Dumbleford, a small village in Suffolk, er, England,” said Linda nervously emek escort bayan in French. “I am here to teach you English and I shall speak to you in English rather than French.” Gabrielle nodded. Linda squeezed her eyes shut. Shit! This wasn’t going to be easy at all. She opened the first page of the English text book. “This is Mary” Linda said in English, reading from the book and pointing at a line drawing of a girl dressed in a tartan skirt and polo-neck jumper. “She lives in London. She is a student.” Gabrielle said nothing, but nodded her head. “Mary speaks English,” continued Linda, not sure whether she was understood. “She comes from England.” Gabrielle nodded again, with an earnest face and no apparent evidence of having understood. Linda sighed, but she persisted. She continued to read out phrases from the English language text book while Gabrielle watched and nodded with no discernible facial expression. Her eyes were the liveliest part of her, perhaps because their whiteness contrasted so much with the blackness of her skin. She looked at the pictures, read the text and returned her gaze to Linda’s face. Her novice teacher, however, was not feeling that a great career in pedagogy was opening up in front of her. It was very hard work to teach, or to try to teach, with such a blank response. It was a very warm summer, seemingly warmer than in England. Linda was feeling the heat acutely, especially so as a result of her frustrations in teaching. She was wearing little enough as it was, just a tee-shirt and a pair of shorts, and she envied Gabrielle who didn’t seem to feel the heat at all. Perspiration dripped down her skin making her tee-shirt damp and cling to her skin. She pulled it forward from her chest to let some air through and, as she did so, she noticed that Gabrielle’s eyes were closely watching her and seemed to peek down at her nipples that were unprotected by a bra. The tee-shirt snapped back on Linda’s bosom and she was aware that her nipples were clearly visible through the cotton fabric. She blushed, but then reminded herself that she was in France. They didn’t worry so much about such modesty here, did they? Although there had been so little response while Linda spoke, she was very gratified to see that when Gabrielle did the written exercise afterwards she got every single answer absolutely right. Maybe Gabrielle already knew a bit of English, although Laurent had said that she’d not been taught it formally. Linda left the text books with Gabrielle and said she’d continue with more lessons in the afternoon. This same pattern was repeated in the following lessons and, indeed, in all those that came after in the next few days. Linda conducted her lesson by reading aloud from the set text book and when she finished each section, Gabrielle would do the written exercises and each time she would do so faultlessly. It was frustrating, however, that there were no spoken exercises she could do, and Linda knew she couldn’t expect Gabrielle to do these, even though they were clearly marked out in the text she was following. So, even these exercises were done by Gabrielle writing down the answers to Linda’s spoken prompts. When Linda wasn’t reading aloud from the book—a task she was beginning to feel was fairly superfluous since Gabrielle had no difficulty in reading—she had plenty of opportunity to study her student. The black girl leaned forward heavily on the desk and pushed the pen hard against the paper. It was a good thing she used a rollerball pen, as a nib on an ink pen would soon have broken under the pressure. As she wrote, her brow furrowed with concentration and she occasionally licked her lips with her tongue. Linda tried to while away the time when Gabrielle was writing by looking around her room, but soon she had seen everything in Gabrielle’s room and returned her gaze to her student. Gabrielle had a long smooth neck that was displayed to good advantage when she leant forward. The knobbled spine followed her neck like Escort eryaman a sinuous serpent dipping beneath the white collar of her blouse. Her arms were bare to the shoulder and Linda noticed a scar on her left arm that was long and deep. She wondered at first whether it was caused by a bicycle accident or the like, before reminding herself that it was more than likely a machete wound. As was, no doubt, another scar on her left leg that was longer but less deep. Gabrielle must have also noticed the summer heat, because she took to wearing a skirt rather than jeans, but it reached to below her knees and was made of quite heavy linen, so it was probably not much cooler. It showed legs that were long and slim and led to a pair of flat-soled feet tucked into her espadrilles. Every now and then, Gabrielle looked up at Linda with her penetrating white eyes and they seemed to rest on her rather longer than was absolutely necessary. They followed Linda from her face and her long hair over her tee-shirt, each one of which celebrated a different commercial product or holiday destination, past her bare navel to her legs and ankles. Linda wasn’t sure what she should think confronted with such a long steady stare, but she reasoned that the cultural differences between France and England must be nothing compared to those between England and Rwanda, and there was probably no meaning attached to such long and intense gazes. She did think it strange that Gabrielle’s eyes so often focused on her bosom, but it didn’t bother her enough that she should put on a bra. “Mary walks into the Bakery,” Linda read aloud, thinking that in real life this Mary was far more likely to drive to the supermarket. “She wants to buy some bread and rolls. What does she say?” Gabrielle scribbled on her note book and handed it over to Linda to read. The black girl’s writing was very precise and small, but totally legible. The letters were as reticent as the rest of her, with no unnecessary flourishes and no identifiable idiosyncrasies. “Please may I have some bread and rolls, madam,” Linda read aloud. “Well, we probably wouldn’t say ‘madam’, though. The English aren’t as polite as the French. No ‘messieurs-dames’ in English.” Gabrielle nodded, as she usually did, but Linda she wasn’t at all sure she understood what she’d said. Linda wondered whether she could broach, in English, the concern that was uppermost in her mind. “If you went to England, Gabrielle,” she asked, “would you communicate by handing people notes like you do with me?” Gabrielle became suddenly flustered and alarmed. Perhaps she already understood more than Linda credited her. She looked at her hands and held the pen impotently in her fingers, letting it hover over the notebook. She looked back at Linda with a startled expression on her face and then back at the notebook, and then she stared at a point in space that Linda identified as being somewhere between her and the wall. Linda sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean… Shall we continue?” Gabrielle returned her gaze to Linda and nodded. “Mary then walks to the Butcher’s,” continued Linda. “She wants to buy some sausages and roast beef. What does she ask the butcher?” Naturally, Gabrielle’s written answer was totally correct. Linda’s mind wandered away from the task at hand, though she hoped it wasn’t too obvious. How much did Gabrielle suffer from her condition and how could she realistically survive in the world if she couldn’t speak to anyone? When it was not spent with Gabrielle, Linda’s time was far more like a holiday than a job. The au pair duties she was given were basically trivial and usually just meant accompanying Pauline to the shops and help her carry her bags to the car. Disappointingly, Pauline spent very little time in boulangeries or boucheries , any more than the fictitious Mary would, and instead went to a vast supermarket, Hypermarché Carrefour. “We’re very pleased with your progress with Gabrielle,” said Pauline, as she weighed some asparagus spears in a plastic bag. “She seems happier, I think. I do believe she smiled for more than two seconds when I greeted her this morning.” “Is that unusual?” wondered Linda, who’d also noticed that Gabrielle was smiling more, but still returning all too soon to her expressionless natural state of repose. “I think so,” said Pauline.