It is Sunday afternoon and I am at a lunch in the country. Most of the people around the table are friends – some of whom I have not seen for a long while – but there are also a few people I don’t know. Conversation is varied and quite loud. I am not normally very good at these things, but I’ve had two glasses of red wine and I’ll tell you what: it’s alarming how charming I feel.
I am in the middle of being interesting about something when I notice that people at the other end of the table are trying to attract my attention. Perhaps, I think, they want me to say my interesting thing louder, so that everyone can benefit. This would be unprecedented, but you never know.
They seem to be asking something, or demanding something, but I can’t make out what it is above the noise.
“What?” I say, resting two fingers behind my ear. My friend Alex points to the woman sitting next to him, one of the people I’ve just met.
“She wants you to say Torquay!” he says. I pause, reach for a nearby bottle of red wine, and refill my glass.
“Unfortunately,” I say, “I won’t be able to do that.”
“Go on!” says Alex.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” says my friend Sophia, who is sitting next to me.
“It’s a thing he has,” my wife says. “One of his many things.”
“This is very weird,” says Sophia. “Why won’t he say Torquay?”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” I say.
“And why are you trying to make him say Torquay?” Sophia says, turning towards the far end of the table. The woman I’ve only just met leans toward us.
“It’s just that I read an article that said Americans can’t pronounce it,” she says. I consider this for a moment.
“I think I wrote that article,” I say.
“Oh no!” says the woman, looking embarrassed. Actually I’m not at all certain I wrote the article she’s talking about, until I check later.
It turns out I had recently referred to my inability to say Torquay in print, but only in passing. My reasons prove difficult to explain in person, especially in front of new people, and especially without saying Torquay, which I am never going to do.
Like many Americans, I only knew of the existence of Torquay because Fawlty Towers was set there. From the way the characters in the programme pronounced it, I always imagined it was spelled Talkee or Tawkey. The stress on the second syllable seemed odd, as if everybody was constantly trying to distinguish it from a similar-sounding town: “No, Taw-KEY.” When I first came to Britain and saw Torquay written down, I had no idea it was the same place.
If you have an American accent – and I still do, sort of – there are no good options when it comes to pronouncing Torquay. You either have to put on a fake English accent to approximate what you hear, or pronounce it in a way that makes it sound like a different locale altogether. For 30 years I’ve searched for a suitable compromise, and found none.
“Therefore I refuse to speak its name,” I say to my lunch companions. “I manage to get by somehow.”
“What if you had to go there?” asks Sophia.
“I’ve been there,” I say. “It didn’t come up.”
“What if you had to describe your stay to someone?” she says.
“I would probably just set the story in Brixham instead,” I say. “No one’s gonna check.”
“He can’t say pergola either,” my wife says.
“I can say pergola, I just choose not to,” I say.
“I didn’t realise having an American accent was so difficult,” says my friend Kate.
“It can’t be as difficult as being English,” I say. “Your accent provides no meaningful way to distinguish between khakis and car keys.”
“Here we go,” my wife says.
“What do you mean?” says Kate. “Car keys and car keys.”
“Car keys and car keys!” says Sophia.
“Listen to yourselves,” I say. “Where are my car keys? I must have left them in my car keys.”
“Is that your third?” my wife says, pointing at my glass.
I take another sip, looking across the table full of friends old and new, all saying car keys to one another, and I think: I am crushing this.