There’s good ventriloquism and there’s bad ventriloquism. I do bad ventriloquism and on a regular basis. That’s not to say I make a living by putting my arm up the ass of a resin puppet. But at times it helps to vent pent-up feelings without moving my lips. Like the time I wanted to pay for my supply of crustacean-free fish oil. In front of me a woman the size of a walrus was hugging three brands of Bombay mix.
‘Which has the least calories?’ she said.
The assistant read out the nutritional information on each of the bags at a soul-destroying pace.
You’ve got to be kidding vibrated through the air the like the drone of a distant wasp.
‘So which one is it?’
Unfazed he began a repeat performance and I made a more audible sound of despair. The woman turned to me.
‘So sorry. I’m hogging the counter.’
Hogging may not have been the right choice of words but I was grateful to her for moving aside.
‘By the way, that’s the one you want.’
‘I’ll take the large bag,’ she said to the assistant who had no choice but to fetch it for her.
The large bag was huge and could have fed Bombay itself.
Being assertive has never been my style. I suppose it’s my parents I have to thank. They were both very fond of the imperative. Do as you’re told. Don’t pull that face. Don’t answer back. Answering back was never a good idea. And thrusting my tongue out as far as it would go and screwing my eyes shut or rolling my eyeballs to heaven lunatic-fashion earned me an early night or even a smack on the head. However, I accepted this as the lot of any average fourteen-year-old boy. Until my older sister began using the same phrases with the force of a medieval weapon.
‘Shove off, we’re watching Buffy,’ she’d say in front of her sniggering acolytes. ‘Go and make some bacon butties.’
‘Make them yourself,’ I’d yap and then it would come, the tone even more authoritative than my mother’s.
‘DANIEL. DO AS YOU’RE TOLD.’
It’s a miracle no one died of food poisoning.
Venting my frustration in the guise of underdone bacon or facial contortions wasn’t always practical. And neither was expressing it plainly for all to hear. Which is why I learned to mutter all sorts of phrases including God Almighty, get on with it, holy crap and sodding hell, all through lips barely parted and in an octave higher than normal. What I still can’t do is make it sound as if the words have come from some unsuspecting guy ten yards away. Not all exclamations lend themselves to third-rate ventriloquism. Bloody hell suffers from the gottle o’gear syndrome and for Pete’s sake remains a problem, as does any other phrase beginning with the letter F. But then, life’s a constant compromise.
Invoking Jesus while looking stunningly bored works well, especially in supermarkets where young couples with their offspring think nothing of hindering customer flow with impunity. For example, a family monopolises the international food section and makes Hepzhiba convert the price of olive oil into euros. The child fails.
‘How will you manage in Tuscany,’ says her mother with a self-conscious nod to their holiday home. But they don’t leave it there. Next they try geography.
‘And what countries are on the border of Italy?’
The child sing-songs through every European country she knows except for the one the parents want.
Yugo-ucking-slavia is on the tip of my tongue but I resist. They’d only correct my dated geography. The father catches my eye and taps his wife’s elbow.
‘Darling, let the gentleman pass,’ she says disappointed that I haven’t given Miss Precocious as much as a glance of approval.
Conveying annoyance without sparking a tedious exchange gets results. Mostly. Some people can be perversely immune to the burst of restlessness that’s unfolding behind them. I was reminded of this recently. It was late and I had exactly eleven minutes to get my train from a station that was in the middle of nowhere. Mercifully, only one other person was using the single self-service machine. He was about fifty and not bad looking in black Levis and a black fedora. Twice I saw him press start again and twice he failed to get a ticket. No coins. No credit card. He took a timetable from his pocket, consulted it and then continued to tap, tap, tap. And, was he making notes? I was looking at the clock savagely. Seven minutes.
‘Nearly done,’ he said.
Nearly was another three minutes by which time I was in the foetal position and almost weeping.
Uddy hell! Uddy ucking hell!
‘Just checking the prices.’
I was in the middle of arranging a Faustian pact – my soul for a Kalashnikov – when he walked away and my train trundled off to its destination without me.
The words were perfectly exhaled in an unmistakable hiss of heart-rending exasperation.
‘Maybe some other time,’ I heard him say as he disappeared into the night.
On balance, it was the best offer I’d had in a while.
I sat on the deserted platform and waited for the last train that would take another hour to arrive. The odds that I’d have been on my way home had I simply appealed to the good-looking guy’s better nature taunted me like an annoying bluebottle. The sort I could mimic if I put my mind to it. What’s the worst he could have said? No? Wait your turn? Only if you French-kiss me? I’d been on the verge of a nervous breakdown and it hadn’t got me anywhere, least of all home. Yet, one positive thing had come out of that night. I’d articulated the letter F without moving my lips. Or, at least, the closest thing to it. It was a moment of artistry and one I hope to repeat.
Eva Rivers lives and works in London. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in 18th century literature from Queen Mary University of London. She is currently working on her first novel and continues to write short stories.