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Tied Up In Noughts

By: Gila Tal, Beit Shemesh, Israel
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

When I was twenty-three I was living in Johannesburg and I needed a job. My boyfriend's father knew the owner of South African Playboy Magazine and he got me an interview. The owner (I don't recall his name) was launching a new women's health magazine.

Imagine the offices: posh, lavish, up- market, Playboy bunny photos everywhere (life-size). Imagine me: young, broke, feminist, left-wing, most comfortable in pajamas. I was an inexperienced journalism graduate from Ottawa in a borrowed blouse from my boyfriend's mother. 

Pointing to a wall of Playboy Magazine covers, I was asked to spot the problem. I gawked at the rows of busts and behinds in various alluring poses. My mind was as stripped of ideas as they were of clothing.

"You can't see the headlines clearly," he explained.

It was clear that I had failed this first test. Then he introduced me to his secretary.  I did not have polished nails or even polished shoes. My outfit was appropriate for a job interview as a typist in a real estate appraisal office: neat, clean, modest. It was certainly not glossy, glamorous, glitzy or grand. She was the tight skirt, low cut, can't recall original hair color type.

"My degree is from Ottawa," I began, "I apprenticed at Ottawa Magazine."

I'm sure she imagined the place like this: one biggish room with a female quarterback turned writer huddled over her ancient typewriter. She fondly went by the name, Smokey; not only because of the home-rolled cigarettes she liked to smoke, but also for the live fish she'd catch with her bare hands and roast over an open fire behind the office. Our coverage consisted of tractor-pull events and interviews with major dart competition winners.

"Could you really write for my South African audience?" she asked me, in ten different ways. The phrase cultural and linguistic differences inflated the air around us. I flatly denied these artificial obstacles, sighting my recent submersion in South African culture. But she looked doubtful. I already knew that a robot was a traffic light and an oak was not a tree, but a guy— any guy.

 "Ya, just go left at the third robot, look for another robot and go right and ask another oke from there," I was told, the first time I asked someone for directions. Visions of R2D2 and C3P0 filled my head as I wondered if robots roamed the streets in Africa, giving directions in order to save on manpower or perhaps, scaring off speeders as scarecrows frighten birds.

I knew millies weren't old aunties swinging on porches whistling Dixie; they were corn on the cobs, just as a braai (rhymes with pie) wasn't the sound of a bleating sheep, but rather a BBQ. I could go on and on, but I am sure you can see how linguistically obstacle-less I really was.

I spent a good deal of time trying to convince my inquisitor, uh my interviewer of this. Finally we settled on a deal: she would give me an assignment to prove I could disguise my writing as native. She rose to leave and I understood I was supposed to do likewise, but I had no car or rather, transport, with me.

  "Can I call to be picked up umm fetched?"              
She nodded, gathering up her stack of important-looking papers.
"Just dial nought," she said, on her way out.

Dial not? Dial naught? Dial knot?  I ran through my mental list of linguistic equivalents, searching for the ones beyond the mundane:flat=apartment; into the exotic; globe= light bulb; polystyrene= Styrofoam; smart= stylish. No, nothing about nots, knoughts, nougats, knots, nothing about any of those.

I dialed nine as was common in Canada, but I was greeted by the silence of the telephone line: no clicks, beeps, glicks and no noughts of any kind. I couldn't get an outside line! I tried dialing one. How about M for murder? I was not only not going to get this position, I was going to die of self-murder; a kind of translinguistic suicide. She poked her blonde-dyed head back in
"Everything in order?"
"Oh yes, ya, my boyfriend should be here any minute, moment."
"You could wait at reception."
  "Of course, umm with pleasure."

She closed the door again. One last hysterical try. Was I hoping she'd have meetings elsewhere, so that I could bed down for the night? Maybe I thought my boyfriend would figure out that my interview must be over and just appear. I don't know how much time passed as I pondered the mysteries of the South African telephone system. She re-entered. I could see she was getting angry umm cross.
"Are you quite all right?"

"Well," I confessed, "I am actually having a bit of trouble with the telephone. 1“What did you say to dial again?"

"I said dial nought."
Mercifully someone called to her and she was gone again. 

Why did I do that? Why didn't I admit that I didn't know how to use the telephone? Was it a crime overseas?

She opened the door for a fourth time; mine was the neck on the hangman's noose.
"Umm actually," I began again in that oh so professional manner she probably thought I'd acquired at Ottawa Magazine.
"What exactly is nought?"

I heard, no I felt the ground fall out from underneath my legs and there I was, swinging in the air, the hangman's grinning face obvious, even under his black masque.
"Zero," she whispered, "Nought means zero"

It sounded like she said, "We don't hire idiots" or "Go back to the outback.”
"Thank you," I hope I said.  The receiver practically slipped out of my sweaty  palms.

I don't know why I handed in the assignment. A week later I got a call from a receptionist telling me that I wasn't suitable. I wonder why nought?

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