This summer, we had visitors. Two girls from Belarus came to stay with us, courtesy of the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
It’s a strange experience, being unable to communicate verbally with children who are, for a fortnight, almost entirely dependent on you, but neither of our visitors spoke any English and my Russian is non-existent, so we had to make do; and by and large we did very well. Our guests learned to ask “Mehgeddown” before leaving the table, and to say “pleeeeease” in the proper way beloved of generations of British children (stretching the vowels out to improbable lengths, with a beseeching rise and fall in pitch in the middle). We learned the Russian for “orange”, “video” and “prawns”. And we got very good at miming and drawing explanatory stick-people pictures.
What was strangest about the language barrier, though - and I say this as someone to whom smalltalk doesn’t come naturally - was the consequent inability to find out anything significant about these children who were, for two weeks, part of our family. We learned - we think - that one lives at home with mother, two grandmothers, and another adult female whom we assume to be an aunt; the other lives with mother, father, and one grandmother. And that was it.
Perhaps it was because I felt I ought to have learned more that, when I took them to the airport and bid them a genuinely tearful goodbye, I found myself making up the next bit. One of the girls, I reckoned, was going home to a family who had missed her desperately and who would, as far as they were able, spoil her over the next couple of days. They would listen to everything she had to tell them about her holiday, pore over the photos we had given her, and create in their own imaginations details about us and our life in Gloucestershire.
The other, I thought, would probably be welcomed warmly enough, but without the same level of fuss and attention. By the time she got home, talk would have turned to other things, and she would be expected to be quiet - would perhaps even be almost forgotten, except as a series of tasks to be attended to. She was, I imagined, returning to a life comprising a certain level of neglect. Having watched her open up over her stay, turning from a child who stood quietly on the edge of things to one who threw herself loudly towards the centre, I felt, at the airport, that in a matter of minutes I saw precisely the reverse happen. I worried about her; and, if I'm honest, I'm still worrying.
Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. Effectively, I’ve made it up, and for all I know, I’ve got it completely wrong. But it does occur to me that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all fictionalise other people. We make assumptions about them and about their lives based on very little evidence. Sometimes we’re aware that we’re doing it; sometimes we’re not.
It’s a useful attribute for a writer, of course. When a new character suddenly appears on the page before us, we have to make their acquaintance immediately; we have to know who they are so that we can tell what they’re going to do next. Is this character good, bad, morally ambiguous? Brave or cowardly? We need to make assumptions about their background, take shortcuts in getting to know them. The difference, of course, is that whatever we decide about our own characters, we know we’re right. When we make up stories about real people, we're only guessing.
John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com