This first extract is from Craig Henderson’s short story Talking in Tounges, which won one of six joint first prizes in the 2012 National Year of Reading’s ‘It’s never too late … to learn to read’ writing competition. Without further ado…
YOU LEARN TO READ one word at a time, just as you learn to walk one step at a time. But walking is easier, once you get the hang of it. You just lean forward and put one foot in front of the other. While learning to read is a constantly evolving challenge. Words change, as do meanings. The trick is to read between the lines, to go beyond the words and immerse yourself in the story.
I’m Ben, by the way. At fifteen, I’m already hooked on words and the strange hold they have over people. Take my family—please someone, anyone. Sorry, that’s an old joke and not a very good one. Maybe I should just tell the story and let you decide what to do with them.
It all began about a year ago when Dad started talking Italian.
Dad is not Italian. He’s as Aussie as Vegemite … er, Blundstone boots … I mean, Bundaberg Rum. I know those aren’t good examples, but you get what I mean. At the footy, Dad could balance a stubby and a meat pie in one hand, while tearing out his hair with the other and hurled obscenities at the umpire at the same time. Dad is the only person I know who could say, ‘fair dinkum’, ‘struth’ and ‘bugger me’, all in the one sentence.
Everything changed one day, when he sat down to breakfast.
He turned to me, winked and said, ‘Buon giorno.’
I almost choked on my Cornflakes. I might have thought he was joking, if it hadn’t rolled off his tongue like he was the Pope.
Mum was on another of her religious charades—full on Catholic, I think—so she just rolled out a Hail Mary and went back to scraping the burnt bits off the toast.
My younger brother, who is thirteen, has ADHD and OCD—doctors seem quite fond of acronyms—along with Tourette’s syndrome. Mum reasons it is God’s will that Joey was born with these afflictions and only the will of God can take them away. And that is Mum’s great dilemma, since being denied a miracle by her own Lutheran God.
Rather than lose her faith, Mum decided she must be barking up the wrong tree. She converted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Masochism, before doing the rounds of the other Christian faiths; the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Presbyterians and finally the Catholics.
But Buddha, Ganesha, and Jesus, Joseph and Mary had failed to deliver the goods, and Mum was ripe to test the waters of less mainstream religions. I guess Dad’s ‘renaissance period’ pushed her closer to those Gods who occupied the fringes of the religious pecking order. She started doing voluntary work at the library just to get out of the house, I think.
With Joey and Mum caught up in their own worlds, I suppose I was the only one that noticed Dad’s slide into an ethnicity that didn’t belong to him. My older sister, Melanie, had turned goth two years ago and was seldom seen during daylight. Mum had given up trying to save Mel’s soul. I think it was the tongue piercing that finally threw her, or perhaps Mel’s I do it with the devil tattoo.
Either way, it was up to me to work out what was happening to Dad and, more worryingly, just what the hell he was talking about. I tried the library first, only to find all the Italian phrasebooks had been checked out, along with the How to Learn Italian CDs. I should have put two and two together right then, but hey, I’m fifteen and there’s a lot going on in my life. Since we didn’t own a computer, I had to book internet time at the library after school and trawl through sites searching for translations to Dad’s latest utterings.
To begin with, Dad spoke a mixture of English and Italian, with the odd colloquialism thrown in. His native tongue gradually slipped away, though, sliding into pigeon English and then full blown Italian. By then Mum had taken up Hare Krishna, so our house resembled a backpacker’s lodge.
Dad would walk into the lounge after work—and God knows (sorry Mum) what language he spoke at the council depot—saying, ‘Ciao, Angelo. Ciao, Beniamino. Ciao, Elena.’
‘Buon giorno,’ I’d reply, the only Italian I knew at that stage.
From the kitchen would come Mum’s mantra, breathed over the latest variation of lentil soup. ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare.’
Joey was busy killing aliens on the PlayStation, muttering a ceaseless line of obscenities, head jerking to one side and his body twitched in time.
‘Non piu,’ no more, Dad would say. ‘Di niente,’ not at all. But Joey just kept ploughing those two-headed freaks into the ground…
About the Author
Craig Henderson has written several prize-winning short stories, notably the joint winner of the 2012 Trung Sisters Creative Arts Competition, one of six winners in the 2012 National Year of Reading Learn to Read Writing Competition, and highly commended in the 2012 Ada Cambridge Prize for a Biographical Short Story and the Melton Short Story competitions for 2010, 2011 and 2012. His work has also been published in Offset magazine and various other magazines and websites. He has always been fascinated by the power of the written word to explain what common sense cannot, is studying Professional Writing and Editing part-time and is a full-time child wrangler.
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