The French have a phrase for it, and it translates as “staircase wit”, i.e. the witty retort to some cutting remark that you only think of while going down the stairs on the way out, but which didn’t bubble up in your brain when needed.
Something similar happens when you’re a lipreader. So often you don’t get what people have said until the moment passes, then you do, but by then it’s too late. I went swimming the other night. It was dark coming back, and I’d left my processor at home – you won’t catch me leaving a few thousand quids’ worth of processor in a locker – and someone drew up in a car and asked me the way to somewhere utterly incomprehensible. I apologised and said I didn’t know. Then as they drove off it came to me: they were asking how to get to Domino’s Pizza, to which, indeed, I could have directed them.
The subtitles of real life are out of sync, in other words, as the brain lags behind in processing the content of what the eyes have read. It’s also a good way of expressing what’s happening as I start to gain speech comprehension in a very limited fashion. When you learn a foreign language, you tuck away bits of vocabulary, and as you gain competence you learn to apply them in different situations. The train tannoy is one such item.
I’ve seen the departure board for my train home often enough to know all the calling points. Last week, I heard the announcement: This train is *crackle hiss boom* Bristol Parkway, Newport, Cardiff Central, Bridgend, Port Talbot Parkway, Neath and Swansea. That’s a rarity – a tannoy delivered with the minimum of interference . . . it’ll probably be 2012 before I hear it again with that kind of clarity. I mean, yesterday I was waiting for the same train and I wondered why anyone saw any point in announcing This train is . . . only for the crackles, hisses and booms to be drowned out by the train arriving on the platform. The announcer was probably wrongfooted by the fact that the train was *on time* (it is, usually, three minutes late).
Back to “tannoy language”. Today I was on a tiny little toy train on the Tarka Line between Barnstaple and Exeter, after a day out visiting family. I was disappointed that there were no announcements of the picturesque little station names to listen out for: Umberleigh, Eggesford, Morchard Road, Copplestone, Yeoford, Crediton. Either that or the ancient, clearly refurbished but nevertheless elderly, little boneshaker of a train was bouncing and rattling everything else out of hearing range. Then, as we approached the suburbs of Exeter, I heard the tannoy suddenly crackle into life. Cree-craa-aaow aieehiss aa aaaeeeuh hiss craaa eee aaaa eee oooor *interminable string of crackles* followed by a small feeling of “foiled again” inside. Then the little man in charge of the switchboard in my brain put me through to the right number: We are now arriving at Exeter St. Davids. Change here for . . . whatever the indecipherable rest was.
This is deaflinguist reporting from the country of the hearing, picture lagging behind the sound, live subtitles surreally skew-whiff, but experiencing it for real out there!