French Evening Class speaking in tongues?
I believe I am reporting a fraud. There is a possibility that it could be something far worse, but let’s call it fraud, if just to ensure my integrity as a witness. Somehow it seems too early in 2016 for anything significant to happen, January always feels formless to me, as if the year is waiting to take shape. Yet something has happened, something that has compelled me to write. Like many people I optimistically made a few New Year’s resolutions over the Christmas period. One of these was to learn a language. Over the previous twelve months I had come to feel my life’s parameters were far too limited, a sensation no doubt shared by many Lethmachen residents, or in fact anyone living in a small town. Perhaps learning a foreign language would open up new opportunities, new possibilities for me? I had decided that to begin with French was the best option as I at least had some experience of studying the subject at school, although little of what I had learnt seemed to stick. It wasn’t that I felt any great affiliation with French culture – there are few French nationals, or indeed any international immigrants, living in Lethmachen. Yet I had to accept I did not really have the confidence to throw myself into anything more exotic, more challenging. I imagined I would find it awkward enough being back in a learning environment after all these years, and I was slightly anxious at the prospect of making a fool of myself in front of the other students.
If it wasn’t for the advertisement I probably wouldn’t have acted and, as is so common, any ambition to change myself would no dount have faded by February. However, the little classified posting in the back pages of The Lethmachen Echo appeared an act of fate. ‘French For Beginners – An Intensive Two Week Course’. Everything sounded ideal: classes were beginning immediately, running 8pm every weeknight, and it would all be over so quickly I would hardly have time for second thoughts. Perhaps the fortnight would give me a taste for a more advanced programme or equally, if I did not enjoy the experience, I could quickly strike it from the ‘bucket list’. Inspired by a renewed sense of purpose, I phoned the number at the foot of the ad, wondering if the ‘limited places’ had already been filled. I suppose the more cautious side of my personality half hoped I was too late, yet after a few cursory questions about my (lack of) language skills, the flat, nameless voice at the end of the line announced I was in. I had heard these type of courses could be quite expensive, however when I enquired the fees they seemed very reasonable; suspiciously affordable I might say in retrospect. Nonetheless I must emphasise they still took my money under false pretences and, regardless of the cost, this amounts to fraud.
The following, frosty Monday evening I walked the twenty minutes across town to Stark House. During the day this rather drab 60’s built office block is home to various insurance and telemarketing firms. Many people I used to go to school with have worked there at one time or another. Yet by night the building is deserted and looks a bit forbidding: I could not see any lights on any levels and the glass foyer was locked up and also plunged into darkness. For a moment I thought I had somehow come to the wrong place, but then I noticed the laminated A4 sheet stuck to the front doors, directing ‘French Beginners’ to a side entrance. After climbing a flight of stairs sparsely illuminated by emergency strip lights I came to a landing and a set of lifts. Following another set of instructions fixed to the wall I took the lift up to the fifth floor and turned right, then left, then right down a dimly lit warren of corridors. A dozen shadowy figures were waiting in awkward silence outside the door of Room 5.17, looking as if they had been summoned to the headmaster’s office. We all briefly exchanged greetings before slipping back into silence, taking it in turns to glance expectantly up and down the corridor, waiting for an instructor we had never met.
The whole class jumped as the door behind them was suddenly flung open and, simultaneously, the windowless room within flickered into light. Our tutor, who announced himself as Mr Carnall, had apparently been in the classroom the whole time, oblivious to his prospective students gathering outside, presumably sitting motionless and mute whilst contemplating the darkness. My first impression of Mr Carnall was that, although he ushered us in with a show of great warmth and enthusiasm, his grin was more like a grimace and he studied each of us as we entered with hard, bird-like eyes. Nevertheless, during his induction speech he was considerate and re-assuring, insisting that none of us should worry if we initially felt out of our depth or struggled with the unfamiliar words and pronunciation. He also advised us to focus all of our attention on this intensive course, and not to get distracted by reading external materials, or be lured into practicing our new found skills on any French speakers. Mr Carnall was concerned that any outside influence could be detrimental to our confidence, as it can be so easy to be misunderstood. We must bear in mind that we were only ‘beginners’, and ‘there are, of course, many different dialects’. On completing his welcome, our tutor insisted we undergo that usual, painful rigmarole of going round the classroom so each of us could introduce ourselves. The majority of those attending had, like me, chosen to take the course simply because they were searching for something new in their lives. A couple of the younger students explained they were considering travelling or studying exchange degrees, whilst the more self-important types asserted they were learning the language for ‘business purposes’. When asking about our previous experience of French (nearly all of us had only fleeting memories of being taught it at school), I now recall that Mr Carnall seemed annoyed when one attendee, whose name I forget, admitted that he had distant relatives in France and had picked up the basics on his occasional visits. Although this student assured the tutor that brushing up on the essentials was what he needed, and he appeared enthusiastic during that first lesson, I noticed he was absent from all subsequent classes.
At the beginning of each lesson Mr Carnall would hand around our text books, in reality well-thumbed photocopied manuals, all of which had to be returned to the tutor at the end of class. ‘L’heure est venue! French For Beginners’ was set in bold text on the front page. The lessons followed a fairly typical format, stirring up vaguely unpleasant memories of school: the whole class reading and re-reading certain passages out loud until they sounded like some kind of ritualistic chant, role playing games structured around strange and unlikely scenarios, listening to audio tapes and watching video clips of strangers going about their lives in cities that look similar to ours but sound uncannily different. Perhaps as a child I had found learning a new language a little intimidating, a little unnerving, but just accepted it. At that age, I suppose the wider world seems like an alien planet. Yet I was disappointed at myself that now, as an adult, I was finding the whole experience even more unsettling than I remembered. It is difficult even with hindsight to pinpoint the root of my anxieties, only I was finding it almost impossible to follow the flow of conversations or the logic of texts; to me the participants in the recorded conversations sounded lost, almost frightened, and the performances of the actors in the videos seemed to imply a darker purpose beneath the bland surface. Matters were not helped by the addition of ‘Malfie’, a cartoon character who appeared in a few panels at the end of every chapter in our texts books. I assume he was designed to lighten the mood, whilst recapping a few grammar points. However, there was something sinister about this faun-like creature who always seemed to be lurking amongst the trees in the middle of nowhere. And what was the purpose of that ominous, dilapidated barn that the artist felt compelled to sketch in as part of the backdrop?
Fortunately, I was not alone. The three-hour classes were always relieved by a twenty-minute coffee break at 9.30pm, when we dozen students huddled into a small kitchen area attached to an adjacent office (I was not sure what Mr Carnall did during this time, but he never once joined us). A number of my classmates admitted, in moderate tones, that they were also finding the course more demanding than they expected, possibly too advanced. We confided that we often found ourselves misinterpreting the subject matter, or reading things into the dialogues that surely could not have been intended. If I ever looked over at Danielle, the woman who occupied the desk next to mine, I was aware that her eyes constantly held a look of bewilderment, sometimes bordering on fear. ‘And what about those ‘Night Tapes’ we’ve been given to listen to at home…’ she said to me during one coffee break ‘Don’t they give you nightmares?’ Frustratingly, at that point our conversation was interrupted by Roger Akeley, one of those ‘business purposes’ people who had soon emerged as the star pupil in the class. He was always seeking to inspire us with unsolicited pep talks and encouraging us to stick with the programme to the end. ‘Believe me, by the time we get to the final test next Friday you’ll really appreciate those ‘Night Tapes’…’ he enthused ‘It makes it all so easy…you can learn in your sleep! I reckon we don’t even realise how much we already know, what is stored in the back of our minds. Those tapes bring back things we thought had been forgotten’. In spite of his determination to sound persistently optimistic, there was something dry and ruthless underlying Roger’s delivery, prone to slipping out if ever someone disagreed with his opinion in class. It was his true voice that I thought I recognised. Had I met him before? It is only now that I realise how much he sounded like that voice on the other end of the telephone. The one that had guaranteed me a place on the course.
The ‘Night Tapes’ are the key to this whole affair; the exhibit I can enter into evidence. These were the only items that were permitted to leave the classroom with us, presumably because Mr Carnall thought it unlikely that anyone still owned the technology to copy the old fashioned cassettes contained within the Walkmans. The idea was that we would listen to these tapes whilst we were sleeping and absorb the knowledge without conscious effort. The cassettes were certainly effective in sending me off to sleep – the monotony of the endlessly repeated phrases and sentences merging into a soporific incantation. These solemn intonations must have continued to run through my dreams for, just as Danielle suffered, I too had nightmares. On waking all I would be able to recall was the imposing outline of a dilapidated barn, framed in silhouette against a rural night sky. Also, other sounds only half concealed by the chanting chorus of voices – the clashing of antlers, the clutter of cloven feet, the excited baying and whinnying of what must surely have been animals. Then the cacophony and the images would be cut dead, I imagine because in my sleep I had reached the end of the tape.
It was on the Thursday night of that second week, the night before the class had to sit their final test, that I received some unexpected visitors. I hadn’t really socialised since New Year’s Eve; obviously my weeknights were now occupied and I typically spent my weekends pacing the flat reciting passages from the ‘Night Tapes’. A couple of my friends had become concerned by my new reclusiveness and took it upon themselves to call round shortly after my return from Stark House. Steven and Sonia arrived bearing a couple of bottles of wine. At first I attempted to politely decline their company, explaining that not only did I have work in the morning but I needed this evening to revise for my French test the following night. There would be no time to swot up tomorrow as I was required to report to Stark House slightly earlier than usual. Mr Carnall had informed us that his company’s ‘Test Centre’ was located on the rural borders of Lethmachen, and he had hired a minibus to drive us out to The Old Tithe Barn. Yet my friends can be very persuasive, pointing out it was too late now to learn anything new, and sure enough we were soon settled down chatting and drinking. Unfortunately, I was completely exhausted as a result of my hectic schedule over the last fortnight, and must have fallen asleep in their company. It could only have been a matter of minutes, yet I was roughly shaken awake to find Steven and Sonia stood over me, their expressions troubled, accusatory. Had I been talking in my sleep? Apparently so…
‘That language is not French! Whatever language you were speaking, it definitely wasn’t French’ argued Steven, an English tutor at International House in Lethmachen. ‘If anything, it reminded me of a medieval English dialect, long fallen from use. From what I could piece together, it sounded like a call to worship, some kind of invocation beckoning something or someone back from the past…’ What I had been murmuring in my sleep were the teachings of the ‘Night Tapes’, yet the words and sounds I had uttered had so disturbed my friends that they feared I had suddenly fallen ill. After the initial shock had worn off, we were all able to laugh about it. Well, at least for a short while. Steven and Sonia convinced me that the classes I had been attending were all part of some elaborate hoax, designed to fleece a few gullible souls of the registration fee. ‘Whatever you do, do not attend the test tomorrow’ my friends cautioned me ‘They’ll probably just try and scam you for more money. Or get you somewhere isolated and rob you. There must be a reason they continued with these fake lessons after all of you had paid in advance’. It was agreed that the next day during my lunch hour I would visit Stark House in daylight, and alert the management company as to what was occurring on their premises after hours. However, when I stormed into the foyer shortly after noon and began ranting about Carnall and his phoney ‘French’ lessons, the staff of Stark House gawped at me as if I had lost my mind. There were no evening classes taking place in their offices, they assured me, that would breach health and safety regulations. They had never heard of this Mr Carnall or had any contact with him. Desperate, almost in a state of panic, I attempted to force those present to listen my ‘Night Tapes’. Unfortunately, at that point, I was escorted from the building by security.
I feel no shame in admitting I was angry…I am angry. Why are there such people in the world, whose only goal seems to be to profit from exploiting and humiliating others? My only crime, weakness if you will, was a cautious desire to expand my horizons, to try and make small changes to my life. Do I deserve to be punished for this? I am curious to know whether Danielle and my other classmates also uncovered the deception. Did they attend the final test at The Old Tithe Barn? Are they now walking around unaware that their language qualification isn’t worth the paper it is printed upon? They were only passing acquaintances; I haven’t heard from any of them or seen them about town since the day before the test. One of my motives for sharing this story on your website is to let them know that if they wish to join forces and lodge a legal complaint against Mr Carnall and his cronies, they will have my full co-operation. After all, in any language, F-R-A-U-D spells fraud.