UNLESS brought up in it, I really don’t believe one can ever become so steeped in a language that it ceases to exist as ‘foreign.’ Of course one can become fluent and even reach the stage where regional accents can be picked out and their slang understood.

No, as I’ve lamented often enough here, it’s the nuances, the experience of a shared cultural history, that bring one up short time and time again.

In many ways language, words, are just a short cut to the heart and soul – if used properly.

Some days I realise that all I’m hearing is a cacophony of sound and I stare wildly at the person talking to me. Like twisting the dials of an old-fashioned wireless I have to quickly fine-tune my ‘French’ brain to find a better reception.

It’s then I find myself stuttering over certain words; stumbling over the cadence and mentally doubting them before they are even uttered.

Mind you, some days I can write a piece of English and the words, however familiar, look and feel just wrong. But then all those years of usage slide smoothly into gear and the error flashes out.

Years of interviewing – as a last resort – by phone, have left me with an instinctive knowledge of when a pause is a lying pause; when the pitch change is a deliberate evasion to avoid actually lying; when I’m being played with.

It is still not so in French where without seeing the visual tics and watching the eyes, my black art flees from me. And yes I can do shorthand in French; it was part of my language course when aged 18. But even those symbols slide like serpents off the page on days when the brain plays hide and seek.

Fortunately I have boundless, some would say ludicrous, confidence in my ability to communicate no matter what. I learned long ago that the French love a trier – it’s the arrogance of the disdainful mono-speaker they despise.

And also fortunately, there are many days when my words fly. Even the long-forgotten French terms return out of the blue to join with the new techno slang.

And occasionally, just occasionally, I pick up and use nuance to direct and flesh out our stories. For we are all stories.

So it was when my gentleman caller came on his always-unannounced visit.

I have long seen the stories in Robert’s 90-year-old eyes but obeying French privacy and reserve I have waited many years to hear them, unable to utilise the language tricks to unlock them.

Now we sat over our coffees and suddenly I was soaring and swooping in a mutual word play without hesitation.

We were talking of violence, of the far right, of the seeming indifference to life when he said: ‘If these people had lived through the war they would never utter such words.’

‘What did you see Robert?’ I asked gently and carefully. This is part of his story. A small part.

‘We lived in Brittany when the Germans arrived. I was 16 and away at school but was home for the weekend. They burst into the house and took me and my twin brothers for interrogation.

‘With the other men and boys we were held and then we were questioned, threatened, hit. There was a resistance cell in the area but it became obvious that I knew nothing and they told me to go home.

‘I looked back at my brothers who had fled once before to avoid forced labour in Germany, but they just smiled and used their heads to indicate I should go.

‘My mother was distraught when they didn’t return. We clung to the belief that they had been marched off to trains and taken to Germany. We really thought that.

‘When the war ended and nobody returned we went out into the forest again. We found a mass grave. They had been tortured and killed as I sat at home.

‘They were 24 years old.’

He has told me this in a level, almost unemotional voice but now he stares blankly ahead. No, not blankly for the pain in his regard lies in a well of profound sorrow.

‘That day, that day,’ he admits almost reluctantly, ‘Marked me forever. Even now they are in my thoughts.’

On his next visit he has promised to bring photographs of the boys, of their family group and of the village where it all happened.

And this time I hope to turn him to happier tales of the boys’ characters and memories of growing up before the horror began.

He smiles again as he remembers the Americans arriving. ‘I was learning English and ran out to greet them. But I couldn’t remember a word. Not one word. I was so embarrassed as I stood before them.’

Words lost. Words sought. Words forgotten. It’s what we are made up of when living another life.

And then sometimes we connect and another story can be told; another memory mined; another warning given.

‘Soon,’ said Robert before he left, ‘All those that were there will be dead. Who will tell the truth then?’

We will Robert. We will.