I had to sit for an English proficiency exam before going to the UK to study. This was way back when I could still do something dumb and get away with saying, “So what did you expect! I’m just an irresponsible teenager!” Ah, the good old days with a built in excuse! Oh, how I miss them. Ah, but I digress as usual.
My command of English was fairly good so I was not very worried about this exam but as I sat through the preliminary briefing I was feeling a little intimidated that the examiner kept making the point that we would be tested on our ability to listen to and comprehend a native English-speaker. As he mentioned it for the umpteenth time, I could feel a knot in my stomach and my stomach is never wrong. Nevertheless, the initial section of essays and questions went well.
Finally we got to section B. In this section, the exam candidates had to listen to a 15 minute recording of a lecture and then answer questions about what we had heard. At first it sounded like gibberish. Perhaps it was the wrong tape or the tape player was going at the wrong speed. It seemed unintelligible. Then the horrific truth began to dawn. The native English speaker we were listening to had an incredibly broad and rich Scottish accent. Whatever it was, it was not the Queen’s English. I got through but I learnt then that there were many forms of English.
Eventually I ended up at the University of London in Chelsea College. It was a good place to study ….. friendly and very accommodating to foreign students; we really felt quite at home, one of the lads. I learnt a lot during my time there.
One thing I learnt was that the English had many euphemisms for the toilet. When I first arrived, I found that airports and other transportation hubs preferred to call it the WC which is short for water closet. The common folk may refer to it as the loo, the lav, the john (some say it was named in honor of the not-so-popular King John from the legends of Robin Hood) or the privy (presumably a place of privacy to do the deed). As you rise in society, you may encounter the “throne room” which implies a certain level of decorum that really doesn’t exist. Polite society may call it the “gents” or the restroom. I became familiar with all of these but there was one more term that I would become exposed to, only in my final year at University.
It began with the students given the responsibility to plan the Christmas dinner and dance for the Department. Everyone was given different responsibilities and I ended up being in the group in charge of physical arrangements. We were having the party at the cafeteria of one of the smaller buildings. My team had to clean the place and put up the decorations. We spent a good part of the day doing it.
At about 4 in the afternoon, our faculty Dean came by to wish us luck with our preparations. He enthused as we showed him around our decorations and arrangements for the hall. He complimented our work and he stressed that the evening was very important as he had invited the Dean of the prestigious college X (name is changed to protect me from hate mail) and his wife for the party and he wanted to make a good impression. We assured him that we would be on our best behaviour to make him proud. He was about to leave when suddenly, he asked us “Where is the room for the coats and cloaks?” As it happened, all six of us on physical detail were all foreign students and had totally overlooked the fact that it being winter, the guests would arrive with coats and cloaks and would need to deposit said items in a secure location before joining the party.
The Dean repeated, “You’ll have to have a room to put the coats and cloaks.” We considered the dilemma for a moment. The truth was there were no rooms available for that use. After some discussion, we told the Dean that the best thing we could do was to get a couple of large tables, place them in a small enclosed alcove near the entrance. The coats and cloaks could be placed neatly there and we would place the registration table in front of that basically securing the area. As the registration table would be manned at all times, the coats and cloaks would be safe. Satisfied with this arrangement, the Dean bid us good fortune and left us to our final preparations.
The party was supposed to start at 7.30 pm. By 7.OO everything looked wonderful and the food which was being brought in by our colleagues on the food and beverage committee smelt delicious. At this point, the place was still fairly empty as it was still early. As fortune would have it, the first two selected by ballot to man the registration table was myself and my good friend Hardeep Singh, both of us non-native English speakers!
Around 7.15 pm, a handful of people had started to drift in. After registering with us, we took their coats and cloaks, placed those on the table behind us and they were free to enter the hall for music and food. Hardeep and I were in a jolly mood as we had already imbibed on some of the good beer available.
Through the glass doors, we could see our Dean with his VIP guests. They were walking about at the front of the building. He was probably taking them around for a little tour. Before long though, the visiting Dean’s wife left her husband and our Dean, who were talking animatedly about some plaque on the wall, and started through the glass doors, right towards our table.
I was intimidated by the sight of her and I think so was Hardeep. She walked with a certain posture and grace which coupled with her elegant evening gown alerted us both that we were about to be in the presence of breeding and aristocracy; something neither of us had any experience of before this. We both stood up in anticipation.
She glided across the floor to our table and in the very purest of blue-blood accents asked, “Do you have a cloakroom?” We were probably standing there with our mouths gaping, blinded by her glittering diamonds and awestruck by the her fur coat draped around her shoulders. She repeated, “Can you show me to the ladies cloakroom?”
Hardeep, bless him, recovered first and managed to blurt out, “I’m sorry madam but we have no ladies cloakroom.”
At that, she seemed to recoil physically but she persisted, “No. You don’t understand. You must have a ladies cloakroom.”
Hardeep was on a roll. “No, madam. You don’t understand. We forgot all about a ladies cloakroom. But do not worry. Please just deposit it on this table and I guarantee that my partner and I will watch over it …..all night!”
At this stage, my ladyship’s face had turned from red to green and finally pale. I had listened to this exchange in silence but now my brain had finally caught up with real life time. Without a word, I gently took the almost catatonic woman by the elbow and led her down the corridor to the “ladies” and slowly and deliberately said, “The Ladies’ Cloakroom, madam.”
She entered the room in silence but with relief written all over her face. I was grinning from ear to ear as I sauntered back to Hardeep who looked at me inquisitively as he still was unclear about what had just happened.
“Hardeep,” I said, “She needed to go to the ladies and you asked her to deposit it on the table.”
“And we’d watch over it all night” he continued. Then we both burst out laughing and we laughed until we cried tears.
Moral of the story:- Don’t trust your VIP guests to non-native English speakers.