Denton could tie sixteen different types of knot and write five different alphabets. He knew the names of every country in the world and how to get from any tube station to any other, even though he had never been to London. He found this knowledge reassuring and periodically checked that he still knew it all. However, none of this helped him understand people. No matter that he could name each part of the brain; people were still a mess of unknowable, indefinable things. He suspected that other people had been given some kind of manual that explained everything – why sofas were important, when to speak, what facial expressions to wear – and because he didn’t have it, he was stumped, permanently. When he was with other people he always wore bewildered expression, hoping this would explain his situation. He wasn’t sure this worked though, because people were often angry with him.
Then, six months ago, Denton decided he’d had enough. He decided to take control. He was very fond of control, it was one of the reasons he was studying for a programming degree. After deciding fourteen separate times to take control, he had finally figured out how.
First, he worked to recreate the secret manual that he was sure everybody but him had access to. This required extensive research. With subtle questions to tutors and fellow students, with googling and searches to the dark web, the information had mounted up. He collated, cross referenced and edited each document, file and super-file. Now for phase two: only using one thousand words.
During his research into normal people and the curious stuff they do, he had read that most people only use a thousand words when speaking. They might know many more words, but normal conversation didn’t require them. As an experiment, Denton had spent a day with a Dictaphone keeping track of exactly how many words he used, and found it to be well over three thousand. He suspected that this excessive use of vocabulary might be why people thought he was strange, it was, at least a clue as to his oddness. So he had devised a list of an essential thousand words, and today would be the day when he restricted himself to using only those words. He had meticulously planned his wardrobe and behaviour to keep conversations on cue.
He heard a scuffling from outside his door and then,
“Denton!” he recognised the voice of his friend Steve. Denton knew that Steve would be standing with his feet flat on the floor and a shoulder’s width apart, that way he would be less likely to fall over when someone pushed him. Steve had been pushed a lot in his life.
“Denton, I’ve found a frog!”
The problem with a thousand-word limit, as far as Denton could see, was that you couldn’t know which situations would occur in any given day. He believed that for one day he could avoid describing the implosion of nebulae, or the function of a radio transmitter. He could avoid all references to the mouth parts of insects and the names of stones in archways. It would make conversation a little mundane, but he liked the challenge of repeating the same ideas over and over, like normal people.
When he had written out his thousand words, he had allowed for each basic everyday situation that he could think of – cancelled lectures, cold winds and earache, that the janitor was really a zombie; all very simple topics requiring just basic verbs and nouns. But he hadn’t thought to include the word frog. Still, Steve was a sensitive soul and Denton didn’t want to let him down. He shuffled from his bed and opened the door.
“Nice watch,” he said when he opened the door, then panicked. Steve stood holding the frog with two hands, two fingers spread slightly to let its head poke through.
“Frog,” he explained proudly, but Denton wasn’t listening, he was still panicking. He had spent several days outlining the plans for his thousand words. For example, he had decided that different verb endings didn’t fundamentally change the word – so he could count ‘speak’ and ‘speaks’ as one word. He had shaved a number of words out of his vocabulary, by choosing only one adjective, where normally several would be used – such as ‘red’ instead of ‘vermillion’, ‘pink’, ‘burgundy’. After all, many people couldn’t seem to tell the difference between those colours anyway. However, he had totally forgotten about Homonyms, words like ‘watch’, for example. He had actually included that word so that he could say “Can you watch my bag?” or “Did you watch telly last night?” but in his desperation to avoid conversations about a frog, he had used it in a different context. Was that ok? Or had he failed already? Not for the first time, he wished that social studies were published in the paper with proper methodology.
“I’m going to keep it,” said Steve, holding up the frog.
“Cool,” replied Denton.
“As a pet,” said Steve.
“Cool,” said Denton.
Maybe he could pass the whole day saying ‘cool’, other people managed it.
They walked to the canteen, across the paving, all the while Steve chatted to his frog and Denton tried to stay quiet.
They had reached the canteen doors where two girls from his year stood sharing a cigarette.
“Hi Denton,” said Su, who had dark eyes and a bright smile.
“Why are you wearing your dressing gown?” she asked.
“Eccentricity,” replied Denton, glad the conversation was going to plan.
“Oooh, a frog,” said Katie who had red hair and a matching birthmark across her neck.
“Yes, I found it in the field. I’m going to keep it in the sink,” said Steve.
“Do you like frogs, Denton?” asked Su.
“What type of frog is it?” asked Su, with great effort of will, Denton kept his knowledge inside, and said,
“You’re very monosyllabic today,” Su narrowed her dark eyes and folded her arms.
“I said ‘eccentricity’,” said Denton puzzled, wondering if people would think him stranger now that he was saying less.
“Eccentricity,” said Katie, rolling the word around her mouth like a boiled sweet.
“That’s a very good word, I don’t use it enough.” Su added brightly,
“You know, I read in the paper today that the average person speaks only three thousand different words in a day.”
“What?” exclaimed Denton.
“Yeh, apparently we all just keep repeating the same three thousand over and over. Except for Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare was an odious buffoon!” said Denton happily, as Su laughed. Denton decided today was going to be delightful.