We met at a party. I was standing in a group of friends when suddenly a man arrived among us who broke off everyone's conversation by the simple means of raising his hand for silence.
"Hello there," he said, breaking in. "My name is Jan, and I would like to welcome you to this party. It will be lasting about five hours and your estimated time of departure at the end of it will be about 1am local time. There will be food in the kitchen area from 9pm onwards.
"Please do not leave your coats in the corridors or hallways, but leave them in the bedrooms and cloakroom provided.
"It's nice to have you here. If you have any requests, please do not hesitate to contact me or members of my immediate family. Thank you."
He smiled and moved away.
"Who was that?" I said, shaken, "and why does he talk in that extraordinary way?"
"His name is Jan and he is giving this party," said my friend. "Don't you know him? Didn't he invite you?"
"No," I said. "You invited me. You said it would be all right to gatecrash."
"Did I? Well, anyway," said my friend, "Jan is from Poland or somewhere and although he has always been very successful in business and travelled round the world, he has never had an English lesson in his life. He has learnt all his English as he went, from listening to in-flight announcements."
"Sure. You know how they are always making announcements on planes in the native language of the airline, and then repeating them more hurrriedly in other languages? And one of the versions is always English? Well, Jan has a powerful memory and a quick mind, and has learnt English that way."
At that moment Jan came strolling past and joined us again.
"Welcome to the conversation," he said. "Among the topics we shall be covering this evening, if conditions are right, are politics, Rupert Murdoch, holidays in South America and the legalisation of cannabis. In about half an hour's time we shall be touching on the Tory leadership crisis.
"In case you should need it, the lavatory is situated towards the front of the flat. If at any time during the party you should experience airlessness, windows will be opened to admit oxygen. Thank you. I will bring you more information at regular intervals."
He strolled on again.
"His grammar is perfect," said my friend, "if a little formal, but learning your English from an aeroplane does mean that your vocabulary is more than a little limited."
A trained linguist would have found all this mildly interesting, but an untrained linguist like me found it totally fascinating, so the next time I spotted Jan alone I went over and buttonholed him.
"How long have you been in England?" I said.
"My date of arrival was 1991," he said. "I came here from Warsaw, with a two-year stopover in Paris."
"And what sort of things do you do?" I said.
"Oh, we serve destinations throughout the world," he said vaguely. "We are part of a loose network of like-minded organisations taking merchandise worldwide."
(This seemed to me to be a bit woolly, but I later learnt he was a small- time drug dealer, so fair enough.)
"That's great," I said. "And do you like it here in London?"
"London is just one of many great international calling places on my list," he said, somewhat non-committally. "Incidentally, sir, may I see your boarding card?"
It turned out he wanted to know if I had been invited, and if not, who the hell I was. Once my friends had sorted that one out and I had been allowed to stay, food and drink was served, in small trays on our laps.
"Has he also learnt his catering from airlines?" I asked.
"Would you like a drink with your meal?" said a smiling Jan, leaning over us.
And so it went on. The extraordinary thing was that it was contagious. Towards the end of the party I found myself saying things to Jan like: "Are we on schedule for the end of the party?" and "It hasn't been at all bumpy, has it?"
When I finally had to go and shook his hand to say goodbye, I couldn't help myself saying, softly: "Controls to manual."
"Thank you for partying with us," he said.
"I hope you will be able to party with us again soon."Reuse content