Table Talk

Jae Vail

September 28, 2022


[dysphonia] The chorus carries my voice off and keeps it for the rafters, confiscated. “You can have it back on Sunday,” the chapel whispers to me in its hushed, Presbyterian tongue. I suppose silence is the price you pay for a little verve and enthusiasm.

[atrophy] Or perhaps I’m out of practice. The folds of my larynx remember where they need to go, but they’ve forgotten the cost of getting there. “I haven’t heard you sing like that in years,” Nana proclaims, palms turned to the sky. “It was like you’s a little girl again.”

[congenital] It’s been over a decade since I sang in the choir for the Good Friday service. Nana asks me every year and I usually decline, but this time, I offered myself forward as an apology for my absence in recent months.

It shocked me how quickly I was swept up in the hymns. Even after belief dries up in earnest, something still lingers in the cartilage. Even as my body cuts itself a new silhouette, as my voice finds a lower octave for its home. Still, some conviction clutches my vocal cords tight, urges me to sing louder. “Here we have a firm foundation,” we sing. As my throat gives out, the others finish the last line without me: “. . . who on him their hope have built.”

[epithet] During supper, they call me by my old name.

[parlance] As a rebuttal, my throat offers a few raspy squawks. A compelling argument, were we a family of crows. Nana pats my shoulder and smiles wide.

[panacea] “Vinegar and honey. You’ll be reet as rain.”

[ventriloquists] Although I raise my arms in protest, Uncle Wilf takes it as a sign of surrender and pushes another sardine on to my plate. Meanwhile, Nana explains to Aunty Ava on my behalf that I moved to Oban to get away from the traffic. I croak like a bullfrog trying to make mention of my partner’s new job, but the conversation continues without me as the three of them map out the circuits of my old life through the streets of Govanhill in a whistlestop tour of double yellow lines and no-right-turns.

[impression] Leaving a pair of sardines motionless on my plate, I witness the other dinner guests exchange precious certainties about the shape of my life. How I gave up the trumpet so I could concentrate on my studies. How I am still renting at thirty-one and cannot drive because I’m saving money for a place of my own. How the baggy jumpers are for the cold, how a short haircut is considered more professional, these days.

It’s a story I’ve told often, but I’m unnerved at how faithfully they can reproduce it without me. A person begins to emerge from this conversation who resembles me in her constitutive parts, but becomes unrecognisable as a whole. A person who is purposeful in her choices, for whom changes are not really changes at all, but only a series of twists and turns revealed in hindsight to have been part of the plan all along, and who’s final destination you could have spotted a mile off had you only trusted the process. She takes a seat at the head of the table where Grandpa used to sit, and joins in eagerly with the Good Friday merriments. Skulking among the fish, I wonder if I should feel flattered or jealous at how good she looks as part of the family.

[constitution] After pudding, Uncle Wilf tries to teach us how to play Euchre. I pair off with Ava, Nana with Wilf. Nana tells us she’s never played a hand of cards with the jokers left in the deck before. Wilf says we are not allowed to tell our partners the cards we’ve drawn. “No table talk,” Ava repeats. “And don’t forget. Jacks are high.”

Although the rules of the game do not preclude general conversation, we fumble through in near-silence. The only sounds we exchange are the rustling of our playing cards. Occasionally, Nana shows her hand to an impatient Wilf, asks him with a raised eyebrow what to do, and he breaks the silence with a series of leading questions that fail to elucidate the logic of the game for either of us. She soon resigns herself to playing cards at random, content enough to be taking part.

[omission] I remove my sweater, my t-shirt falls flat across my chest. I’ve been putting this moment off for months. Without a doubt, I prefer the way my body feels now, but after all the waiting lists, I thought the surgery would feel like more of a moment of arrival.

[gospel] The three of them look at me expectantly. Hush hangs like a question mark over the dirty dishes. I shuffle in my seat, try to imagine the words I would say were I able to speak. But stripped of the means to fill the empty space with my voice, I am surprised to discover how good it feels not to offer any explanation at all. Instead, my body murmurs forth its own elliptical utterances. And beneath, much deeper, into my tissue where muscle memory resides, a calm opens up like a window, lets in a familiar hum that’s been there since the start — time need not only be a forward arrow, now lay down your Jack of Hearts.

I realise it is my turn, place my Jack in front of me. The game continues.

[aleatory] Nana pulls a winning Queen that trumps my play and though she doesn’t understand the reason for her victory, she’s pleased nonetheless. We take it in turns to pat her on the back with muffled congratulations.

[prophecy] Sunday comes round quick and, sure enough, so does my voice. At the train station, Nana hugs me tight. “Owh, darlin’. It was so nice to hear you sing again.”

I kiss her powdered cheek and tell her, “Next time, I’ll be even louder.”

Jae Vail is a writer based in East London. They completed their Ph.D. in music at the University of Manchester and currently work at the IWGB union. Their writing is published in Fairlight Shorts and Stone of Madness Press, and is forthcoming in Belle Ombre.