The Half Conversation…

An excerpt from The Bendithion Chronicles

When I went to Wales to teach, I wrote a good many letters home. This is an excerpt from one of them:

“There are no Welsh people on the faculty (which they call ‘the staff’). But there is one on staff, (which they also call the staff) and that is Beryl.

Beryl is our Administrator in the English Department and what she doesn’t know about the Department, the University, the people who staff and teach in the University, the town and the surrounding villages, (she grew up in a nearby village called Maesycrugiau — try to pronounce that) just isn’t worth knowing.

Beryl is Welsh. Welsh-Welsh — tall, willowy, elfin, discreet, soft spoken, delicate, courteous, gentle, warm, well disposed to all, accommodating, generous, deeply kind, extremely thoughtful, caring about everyone to a fault and consequently a worrier. As you can imagine, in an institution with hundreds of people, there are all sorts of confidences, sensitive bits of information, policies, personalities, procedures, rules, and demands that Beryl deals with daily. She is a genius at it and everyone loves her. She knows so much about everyone, and she keeps it all to herself with one tiny exception.

Because I happen to be the sort of person that people seem to tell things to, whether or not they should (and often whether or not I want to hear it), and because Beryl is as well — both in her official capacity and by her sympathetic nature, it turns out that Beryl and I are often in possession of the same information even though one or the other of us isn’t officially supposed to be. Usually me.

Beryl and I don’t break confidences if they are truly confidences — that is if either of us is really the only one that knows of a certain thing (and if that thing is personal to someone else — not some silly change in regulations, for example), but we also often find it useful to share opinions and ideas on what ought to be done to rectify a situation or help someone when we both know the same thing but each has been asked to keep it quiet — which, I might add, has become a regular state of affairs in the department. So we have developed the ‘half-conversation’ in English. [Note: This is before I learned to speak Welsh well enough to switch over to that very useful language, well interspersed with English words that I didn’t know in Welsh to have private conversations.]

I walk into the Department Office every morning and greet Beryl before going to my office and if no one else is there, it goes something like this (this is not a real conversation — it’s just made up from a lot of conversations we have had — sort of a representative sample):

She: Good morning.

Me: Good morning.

She: Anything new, then? (This usually refers to a particular ongoing saga and means “have you learned anything new about this situation since we last communicated?” which is likely to have been the evening before or even earlier in the morning by phone.)

Me: Not exactly, only He[1]said last night that he might not…[here I fade out since if it is clear that Beryl doesn’t know what I am about to say, or doesn’t want to talk about it if she does know, or if someone comes into the office while we are talking, I can finish the sentence truthfully with a different ending — like “get his marking done by Friday.” This she knows, so she supplies the right conclusion to the sentence to let me know she knows what I am going to say, in order for us to continue. And vice versa].

She: …be coming back next term? Mmmm — I heard something like that as well. Only don’t mention it since he asked me…

Me: …to keep it under wraps? [Beryl and I consider ourselves under the same wrap] Me too. But I heard from Sandy (one of the Porters) that he was over there in… well…

She: …the V.C.’s office. Well, Blodwyn rang, you see. [Beryl grew up with or knows well the entire spectrum of university personnel (or so it seems!) who are also Welsh. This is a separate Welsh Network that I know of but am not part of. Very Efficient.] On the Wednesday, wasn’t it? So that was something. (The university, like everything else in town is dormant on Wednesday afternoons so a meeting on this day indicates its importance and secrecy.)

Me: That’s what I thought.

She: Oh dear. Because that means…

Me: I know. Of course it could be something else.

She: But he was wearing the blue yesterday. [This means his blue suit. The significance of this is similar to Matthew going to town in Anne of Green Gables[2].

Me: Ah.

She: Hmmm… Well. Because Liam happened to be coming out of the car park last week when He was at the car and Liam thought, where’s he going then on a Thursday? — he’s got the Romantics at noon in the Thomas. [Meaning he is supposed to be giving a lecture on the Romantic Poets in the lecture hall in the RS Thomas Building and is instead getting into his car at that time]. And oh dear this is the third time — the students won’t be happy, having another Reading Session as he calls it. On their own. Well, they can read in the bath, can’t they? They don’t need to be reading during lecture hour.

[This is all said with a very charming Welsh accent which is impossible to duplicate here. It involves a trilled “R” and the separation of syllables. “Reading” for example would be “rrrhee — a– dinnng.”]

Me: Maybe we can suggest that Cecil takes over one of his lectures — he has been wanting to do a lecture on the Romantics to keep his hand in so to speak and this could really help both of them out.

She: Oh, Cecil would be delighted. He’s been wanting a lecture for ever so long. I’ll have a word…

[I know here that the word will be had not with Cecil, a junior lecturer, but someone in the department who will talk to the lecturer who has left his class to read on their own.]

Me: But it didn’t come from me. I’m not supposed to…

She: Oh no. Don’t worry. Well, we were just having a chat, you and I, and you said how nice it would be for Cecil to do a lecture some time. Normal conversation.

Me. Yes.

She: There we are, then. I’ll have a word. [pause] Have you seen…[a little throat clearing here and a facial expression that includes eyes moving in the direction of the person in question’s office.]

Me: I saw her last night in Somerfields. She seemed a little…sort of…

She: …upset about something?

Me: Yes.

She: Did she happen to…mention anything?

Me: Well…she didn’t have to, really. Gregor wasn’t with her. So I figured…

She: There you have it. Perhaps it’s that.

Me: It seems that it could be something like that. I mean, it just seems that way.

She: Well, there has been a little parting of the ways, before.

Me: [realizing we both know the same thing] When did she tell you?

She: Yesterday.

Me: Me too.


Both of us together: Shall we take her to lunch?

Both of us together: Good idea.


I can’t tell you how I miss these conversations

[1] We both know who “He” is when spoken with a capital H and know who it is when spoken with italics and we know who it is when spoken with both and we both know how to do that with each other.

[2] “Thomas Lynde, a meek little man whom Avonlea people called “Rachel Lynde’s husband”, was sowing his late turnip seed on the hill field beyond the barn; and Matthew Cuthbert ought to have been sowing his on the big red brook field away over by Green Gables. Mrs. Rachel knew that he ought because she had heard him tell Peter Morrison the evening before in William J. Blair’s store over at Carmody that he meant to sow his turnip seed the next afternoon. Peter had asked him, of course, for Matthew Cuthbert had never been known to volunteer information about anything in his whole life. And yet here was Matthew Cuthbert, at half-past three on the afternoon of a busy day, placidly driving over the hollow and up the hill; moreover, he wore a white collar and his best suit of clothes, which was plain proof that he was going out of Avonlea; and he had the buggy and the sorrel mare, which betokened that he was going a considerable distance. Now, where was Matthew Cuthbert going and why was he going there?” — Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, Project Gutenberg: