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issue 20: september - october 2000 

spanish translation | author bio

by Anne Donovan


 Ah mind they were birlin and dancin roond like big black spiders. A couldnae keep a haunle on them fur every time ah thoat ah'd captured them, tied them thegither in some kindy order they jist kep on escapin.

      Just learn the rules pet. Just learn them off by heart.

      But they didnae follow oany rules that ah could make sense of. M -A -R -Y. That's ma name. Merry. But that wus spelt different fae merry christmas that you wrote in the cards you made oot a folded up bits a cardboard an yon glittery stuff that comes in thae wee tubes. You pit the glue on the card and shake the glitter and it's supposed tae stick in a nice wee design. It wisnae ma fault, ah didnae mean tae drap the whole load ae it on the flerr. But how come flerr wisnae spelt the same as merry and sterr wis different again and ma heid wis nippin wi coff an laff and though and bow, meanin a bit aff a tree. Ah thoat it wis Miss Mackay that wis aff her tree, right enough.

      A pride of lions
     A gaggle of geese
     A flock of sheep
      A plague of locusts

      We hud tae learn aw they collective nouns aff by hert, chantin roond the class every afternoon when we came back in fae wur dinner, sittin wi oor erms foldit lookin oot the high windaes at the grey bloacks a flats and the grey streets, and sometimes the sky wisnae grey but maistly it wis. And ah could of tellt you the collective noun for every bliddy animal in the world practically, but it wis a bitty a waste when you think on it. Ah mean it would of come in handy if Drumchapel ever got overrun wi lions. You could of lookt oot the windae at some big hairy orange beast devourin yer wee sister and turn to yer mammy and say,

      Look mammy, oor Catherine's been et by a pride of lions

      and huv the comfort a knowin ye were usin the correct terminology, but ah huv tae tell you it never happened. No even a floacky sheep ever meandered doon Kinfauns Drive of a Friday evenin (complete wi Mary and her little lamb who had mistaken their way ). In fact ah never seen any animals barrin Alsation dugs and scabby auld cats till the trip tae the Calderpark Zoo in Primary Four.

      She lacks concentration.

      She's lazy, ye mean.

      No, I don't think she's lazy, there is a genuine difficulty there.

      She's eight year auld an she canny read nor write yet.

      Ma mammy thoat ah wis daft, naw, no daft exactly, no the way wee Helen fae doon the street wis. Ah mean she didnae even go tae the same school as us an she couldnae talk right an she looked at ye funny and aw the weans tried tae avoid playin wi her in the street. Ma mammy knew ah could go the messages an dae stuff roond the hoose and talk tae folk, ah wis jist daft at school subjects, the wans that that involved readin or writin oanyway. Fur a while efter she went up tae see the teacher ah got some extra lessons aff the Remmy wummin but ah hated it. She wis nice tae me at furst but then when ah couldnae dae the hings she wis geein me she began tae get a bit scunnered. A hink she thoat A wis lazy, and ah could never tell them aboot the letters diddlin aboot, and oanyway, naebdy ever asked me whit it wis like. They gave me aw these tests an heard ma readin and tellt ma ma ah hud a readin age of 6.4 an a spellin age of 5.7 and Goad knows whit else, but naebdy ever asked me whit wis gaun oan in ma heid. So ah never tellt them.

      And efter a while the extra lessons stoaped. They were dead nice tae me at school but. Maisty the time the teacher gied me the colourin in tae dae an when ah wis in Primary seven ah goat tae run aw the messages an helped oot wi the wee wans. No wi their readin of course, but gettin their paints mixed an takin them tae the toilet an pittin oot the mulk fur them.

      Mary is so good with the younger children, I don't know what I'm going to do without my little assistant when she goes to the High School.

      A big rid brick buildin bloackin oot the sky. Spiky railins wi green paint peelin aff them. Hard grey tarmac space in front wi weans loupin aw ower the place, playin chasies in the yerd, joukin aboot roond the teachers' motors; the big yins, sophisticated, hingin aboot the corner, huvin a fly puff afore the bell goes. And us, wee furst years, aw shiny an poalished lookin in wur new uniforms (soon tae be discardit), staunin in front ae the main door, waitin tae be tellt where we're gaun.

      Just copy the class rules off the board into your jotter.

      Anither brand new jotter. Anither set a rules tae copy. This is the last period a the day and the sixth time ah've hud tae dae it. Could they no jist huv wan lot a rules fur every class? It takes me that long tae copy the rules oot that the lesson's nearly finished and ah've missed it. The French teacher took wan look at the dug's dinner ah wis producin an tellt me no tae bother. And the Maths teacher asked me ma name an looked me up in a list.

      You're Mary Ryan, are you? Mmm.

      Must of been the remmy list. Ah'm no remmy at Maths right enough- it's jist ah canny read the stuff. If sumbdy tells me whit tae dae ah kin usually dae it, ah jist canny read it masel in thae wee booklets. It's funny how the numbers never seem tae birl aroond the way the letters dae; mibby its because there urny usually as many numbers in a number as there are letters in a word, if ye know whit A mean. Or is it because ye read them across the way and ye dae maths doon the way? Mibby if ah lived in wanny thae countries where they wrote doon the way ah'd be aw right. Ah mean no everybdy writes like we dae. We done a project on it in Primary Five and there's aw kinds a ways a writin in the world. Some folk read right tae left and some up and doon. And they Egyptians drew wee pictures fur aw their writin. Ah hink ah should of been an Egyptian.

      And what's this supposed to be - hieroglyphics?

      A hated that sarky bastard. Mr. Kelly. Skelly, we cried him though he wisnae actually skelly; he used tae squint at ye through wan eye as if he wis examinin ye through a microscope an hid jist discovered some new strain a bacteria that could wipe oot the entire population a Glesga. He wis the Latin teacher but he hud hardly oany classes because naebdy done Latin noo so they'd gied him oor class fur English, and then every time a teacher wis aff sick he used tae take the class, so ah began seein a loaty him. And that wis bad news.

      Ye see ah'd never felt like this afore wi oany ither teachers. Ah knew whit they were thinkin of me right enough, ah could see it in their eyes, but maisty them jist thoat ah wis a poor wee sowl that couldnae learn oanythin, so whit wis the point a them tryin ae teach me? Sometimes they even said it oot loud, like when the heidie wis daein his wee dauner roon the classes tae make sure we were aw workin hard and no writin grafitti on wer jotters. (Chance wid of been a fine thing.)

      And how are they settling in Miss Niven?

      Oh very well, Mr McIver, they're all working very hard on their project on the Egyptians. Amir has produced a wonderful imaginative piece on the last thoughts of Tutenkhamun and look how neatly Mary's coloured in the borders of the wall display.

      (Stage whisper) She's a poor wee soul but she tries very hard.

      Obviously no bein able tae read makes ye deif.

      But that big skelly bastard wis different. Tae start wi ah thoat he wis jist borin and boredom is sumpn that disnae bother me, ah'm used tae it, ah hink maist weans are. The furst few days he rambled on aboot grammar and wrote stuff up on the board an we didnae really huvty dae oanythin bar keep oor mooths shut. Which is easie-peesie tae me. But then he startit tae dictate notes tae us and he could time his pace jist so. If ye kin imagine the class like a field a racehorses then he wus gaun at such a pelt that only the first two or three could keep up wi him. The rest wur scribblin furiously , their airms hingin oot thur soackets, sighin an moanin ower their jotters, and then he'd tease them wi a pause that wis jist a toty bit aff bein long enough tae let them catch up, an then, wheech, he wis aff again lik lightnin.

      Me, A wis the wan that fell at the furst fence.

      Ah did try but ah goat masel intae such a complete fankle that ah hud tae stop writin, and insteid a bein like the ither teachers and jist leavin me in peace or sendin me a message or sumpn he hud tae make hissel smart by drawin attention tae me. Jist a big wean really, though it didnae feel that way at the time.

      Do you know what heiroglyphics are, Mary?

      Aye sur. It's Egyptian writing.

      Yes, sir, not Aye, sir. I is the first person nominative, not that any of you will know what that means of course, since you no longer have the good fortune to be properly educated in the classical tradition. Maybe if you would learn to speak properly you could then write properly.

      The class were aw sittin up like circus lions at this point, wonderin whit the ringmaister wis gonny dae next. Sometimes he would launch intae a big long speech and then ye didnae huv tae dae oany work. Which wis hunky dory as long as you wereny the wan he'd lamped oanty.

      So, Mary, if hieroglyphics means Egyptian writing, why do you think I am referring to your script using that term?

      Because you canny.. can't read it, Sir.

      Precisely Mary. And since the function of reading is to communicate, what point is there in writing something which is utterly unintelligible?

      Ah jist sat there.

      Well, Mary, I'm awaiting your answer.

      But if you were an Egyptian you could read hieroglyphics, sur.

      Are you trying to be funny, girl?

      No sur.

      I thought not. Well, Mary, since neither you nor I nor anyone in this room appears to hail from ancient Egypt, you are going to have to learn to write in a legible hand. And since you have not managed to write down today's notes then I suggest you borrow someone else's jotter and copy them out tonight.


      Ah wis mortified, pure mortified. The lassie next tae me passed her jotter ower wioot sayin a word and ah pit it in ma bag and walked oot the room. And from that day sumpn funny startit tae happen that ah couldnae unnerstaun. The class stopped talkin tae me but it wisnae like they'd aw fell oot wi me; ah mean if ah asked tae borrow their tippex or said did ye see Home and Away last night they wid answer me, but they widnae say much and they never startit a conversation wi me. And there seemed tae be an empty space aw roond me in the class, fur naebdy sat next tae me if they could help it. Ah couldnae figure it oot, fur they aw hatit auld Skelly, so how come jist because he didnae like me they didnae either. You'd hink it wid be the ither way roond.

      And it wisnae jist in his class either, ah could of unnerstood that aw right fur who wants tae sit near the target practice? But it wis in every class, and the playgrund and the dinner school. And when ye move up tae the big school it's a time when friendships kindy shuffle roond like wanny they progressive barn dances, and ye make new wans an ye lose auld wans and somehow in the middly aw this process ah fund masel oot the dance wioot a partner. And it wisnae nice.

      Then ah startit daein the hieroglyphics fur real. In the beginnin it wis part of oor History project on the Egyptians. We aw hud tae make up oor ain version, writin wee messages and stories. Miss Niven presented it tae us as if it wis some crackin new original idea though of course we done it in Primary Four (but we didnae tell her that cos it wis better than readin aboot the preservation a mummies). And ah turnt oot tae be dead good at it. Somehow the wee pictures jist seemed tae come intae ma heid and it wis that easy compared tae writin words. If ye wanted tae say would you like a cup of tea? ye jist drew a wee cupnsaucer an a mooth wi an arra pointin at it and a question mark. Nae worryin aboot whit kindy wood it wis or how many e's in tea.

      And gradually ah progressed fae writin wee messages tae writin whole stories in pictures. Ah spent ages gettin them jist right and colourin them in wi felties and Miss Niven even gied me a special fine black pen fur daein the outlines. And the rest ae the class moved on tae the Second World War but ah stayed in ancient Egypt, stuck in a coarner a the room wi a pile a libry books roond me, drawin they wee sideyways people wi their big fish eyes. They used tae get buried wi aw the hings they thoat they'd need in their next life, they even took their food wi them, and it set me wonderin whit would ah huv took wi me intae ma next life, but then how would ye know whit it wis gonny be like? It's a bit lik gaun tae Ayr fur the day, will ye be runnin aboot on the beach in yer shorts or sittin in the cafe wearin five jumpers, watchin the rain pour doon? And if ye canny prepare yersel fur a day at the seaside how the hell ur ye gonny dae it fur yer next life?

      And the mair ah studied they libry books the mair ah could see things huvny changed aw that much since the time a the Egyptians. They hud gods that were hauf-human an hauf-animal and as ah looked at their pictures ah saw the faces a ma teachers. So ah drew some gods ae ma ain. Miss Niven wus a wee tweetery wumman, aye dartin roond the classroom so ah gied her the body ae a wumman and the heid ae a wee speug, coacked tae wan side. Then there wis Mr Alexander, hauf-man, hauf-fish cos he wis aye losin the place. Auld Kelly hud grey crinkly herr lik a judge's wig and a big baw face so he hud tae be a ram wi huge curly hoarns, jist like the Egyptian god ae the underworld. Very appropriate, that. And ah wis jist tryin tae work oot whether the heidie wis mair lik the Sun god or a sphinx, when he swept intae the room.

      Miss Niven, the Quality Assurance Unit will be visiting the school next Tuesday, nothing to worry about, just an informal visit to pick out good practice.

      Will they want to see my planning sheets?

      Yes, but I'm sure all your paperwork is up to date, and there is evidently splendid work going on the room. But what is this child doing drawing pictures of Egyptians? Should she not be on to the 'Victory for Democracy' Unit by now?

      So the next day ma felties an cardboard were pit away and ah hud tae dae a worksheet on the Russian front. She let me keep the wee fine black pen though, she's dead nice, Miss Niven.

      But Skelly Kelly wis still a bastard and ah got him every day a the week. And his teachin wisnae even as modern as the ancient Egyptians, oot the ark, mair like; aw ye did wis write write, write till yer erm felt like a big balloon or ye hud tae dae grammar exercises and interpretations, and he never read us stories like the ither English teachers. And because ah couldnae dae aw the writin in time ah ended up takin piles a stuff hame tae copy up every night, then he took the jotters in wanst a week and mines came back covered in red marks. Ma writin looked a bit like wee scarab beetles scurryin aboot the page and when he corrected it, it wis as if the wee beetles hud aw startit bleedin.

      Once again, Mary Ryan, I can barely read a word of your writing.

      Ah couldnae unnerstaun a word of whit he wrote on ma jotter either but ah couldnae very well say that, could ah?

      And then wan day ah couldnae take it oany longer.

      Today you will be doing a timed composition. This is to give you practice for your examinations. The question is on the board. You have precisely fifty minutes. Begin.

      Imagine you are going on a journey. Describe where you are going and what things you would take with you.

      So ah startit tae write aboot ma journey tae the next world and the hings ah wid take wi me, aw in wee pictures. Ah drew me and ma mammy (ma da might as well be in the next world fur aw ah see of him) and ma sisters, Catherine an Elizabeth in a wee boat, fur ah hud some idea that ah wanted ma journey tae be ower the watter. And we took nice stuff tae eat, big plates a mince an tatties (ah know ye couldnae really keep them hot but it kinda makes sense the way the Egyptians dae it) and ice cream fae the cafe an bottles a ginger and sweeties and that.

      A spent a long time thinkin oot whit else ah wanted tae take, fur a loaty the hings we huv in this world might no be oany use tae us in the next. After aw, whit use are CDs if there's nae electricity? So ah decided tae gie each ae us three hings tae take in the boat fur ye widnae want that much stuff that the boat wid sink, an oanyway three is wanny they numbers that's gey important in stories. Who ever heardy emdy gettin five wishes aff their fairy godmother or the two blind mice or seventeen wee pigs?

      Elizabeth's three hings were easy fur she's only four an she aye cairries a bitty auld blanket roond wi her, and she'll no go oanywhere wioot her teddy or her Sindy doll. Catherine's eight but she would need tae take her teddy too and her new blue jumper wi a picture of a wee lamb on it an her deelie-boablers; ye know they hings ye pit roond yer heid like an alice band but they've got wee antennaes stickin oot fae them an they make ye look lik sumpn fae ooter space. Ah know these kindy hings go in and ooty fashion and two weeks fae noo she'll feel like a real chookie when she minds she wanted tae go tae mass in them, but at the moment she'd want tae take them. And ah'd take some paper and the black pen fur daein ma heiroglyphics, and ma picture ae a wee spaniel pup that ah cut oot of a magazine and keep on the wall by ma bed, fur we couldnae huv a real dug doon ma bit.

      But whit would ma mammy take wi her? Aw ae a sudden it came tae me that ah didnae know whit ma mammy wid take on her journey tae the next world, it wid need tae be sumpn private and jist fur her, and mammys don't tell ye these things fur they're too busy workin and bringin ye up tae huv a loaty time fur theirsels. And then auld Kelly told us tae finish off, it wis time, so ah hud tae leave her wi naethin. But mibby no, fur ah hink if ah'd asked her, ma mammy wid say we are her three best hings; Catherine and Elizabeth and me.

      Mary Ryan will collect in the compositions.

      Ah walked roond the class, gaitherin in the bits a paper, lookin at each wan as ah picked it up. Aw they different kinds a haunwritin; squinty, straight, big or wee, different sizes and shapes on the page. Then ah picked up ma ain story wi its neat wee black drawins and noticed ah hudny pit ma name on it. So ah drew a wee picture of masel wi a cheery face on it, pit ma story right on tap ae the pile and planted the whole lot doon in the centre of his desk.

2000 Anne Donovan

'Hieroglyphics' by Anne Donovan, from: Hieroglyphics and other Stories by Anne Donovan, to be published spring 2001 by Canongate Books, Edinburgh, UK.

This story  may not be archived or distributed further without the express permission of TBR and the author. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Anne DonovanAnne Donovan lives in Glasgow. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies and broadcast on BBC radio. She is the winner of the Macallan/SoS short story competition (1997) and a Canongate Prize winner (1999). Her collection of stories, Hieroglyphics and Other Stories is due to be published by Canongate in spring 2001. Currently in receipt of a SAC bursary, she is writing a novel which will also be published by Canongate.

navigation:                         barcelona review #20                 september - october 2000

George Saunders: Sea Oak
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby At Work
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles...
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics
Yvonne Vera:
excerpt from Butterfly Burning
Clayton Hansen: A Box for the Sand Country
Nuria Amat: excerpt from Intimacy


Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Lawrence Norfolk: Being Translated...
Translators' Replies to Norfolk


John Ashbery: 3 Poems
Jonathan Monroe: 3 Poems

-Interview Carole Maso
-Article September and October in Barcelona

Harry Crews
Answers to last issue's Toni Morrison Quiz

-Regular Features Book Reviews
Back Issues

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