The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 8 May 2020

Everybody loves me


“Max, do you still like me?”

When I asked, Laetitia smiled. Max said yes, and Laetitia smiled again. The lesson before, he had run into my arms. I was on the sofa, waiting for Henry, when he jumped onto me, pushed me down and lay out full-length, his chest bare and his arms around me. He was lying like this when Henry walked in. The older boy stopped. He wouldn’t lie in my arms, even if he liked me enough, and I don’t think he did. The five-year-old adored me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, in his view, he had found an adult as silly as he was.

After the lesson, Mrs M. and I had one of our conversations. This time it was about Anna. We recalled how she had rejected my tuition, although she plainly liked me.

“Everybody loves me,” I said. “Anna loves me, Max loves me, Laetitia loves me.” I glanced across, and sure enough, she was smiling sweetly. Then I looked at Mrs M. “You love me.” Her body tightened. Silence. “I’d better stop talking.”

“Yes, I think you had.”

For once, she had spoken without hesitation. We heard a voice upstairs. The painters were still there. It was in July.

“They’re Italian,” I said. “They won’t work in August.”

She looked at me in her old, blank way. As it happened, their work was done by the end of July. Mine was too. The last lesson arrived, although I didn’t know it. When I walked in, Max ran the length of the passage, a very long one, into my arms, in front of his mother.

“Isn’t that nice?” she said and tried to smile, but she didn’t like it. I thought, Does Max do that to his father? She may have thought the same thing. It was the kiss of death, without the actual kiss. Max was a boy. He didn’t do that.

The cancellation had been coming. Mrs M. had grown convinced that Henry would fail his entrance exam. She didn’t tell me. I felt it. Perhaps she had always doubted him, his intellect or his stamina. She had been a reluctant client from the start. I remember how hard it was to arrange the first lesson. In the end – the very end, I mean – it was easy to stop. She wanted Henry to get into that school, but if he wasn’t able to, it was better to pull out before the exam, not merely to save money on tuition or to spare the little boy’s nerves. Most importantly, if she pulled out now, she would avoid the embarrassment of failure. In truth, I had always embarrassed her. My familiarity, my quips, had in themselves not been enough for sacking, but – when the time came – they didn’t make it any harder. My sacking was revenge for all those moments when she’d stood in front of me unable to think of what to say, or unwilling to speak in case what she said was wrong. She didn’t want me any longer, but she still couldn’t tell me. She cancelled two lessons in a row, by text, at late notice with weak excuses. So sorry, she began each time. Two lessons, not the whole tuition. In terms of sacking, she was silent. She hoped I’d understand and simply not go anymore. Less awkward that way, for her, at least, and that was all that mattered.

I answered the first text but asked her to confirm the next lesson, pretending not to know what she meant. I ignored the second text. It was I who didn’t speak, I who stopped. In the end, I sacked myself.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The biggest poo in the world


The next week, Mrs M. asked how Henry had done in the previous lesson, when she was out. She had passed on some maths questions provided by the school as a sample of what to expect in the exam. They were very difficult. There was an answer sheet (the first thing a tutor looks for), but no explanations, no method. I had to work them all out myself.

“There was a very hard question at the end. I got it right, though,” I added merrily. Mrs M. widened her eyes. She didn’t speak. “Teachers normally prepare, to avoid looking foolish in front of their pupils.”

More silence. Mrs M. was sitting on the sofa, next to Anna, who had propped her legs up, as children like to do.

“Are you putting all your eggs in one basket,” I persisted, “or are you applying to other schools?”

She still didn’t speak. Silence is one thing. Mrs M. did more; she withdrew, in her mind, to another place, away from the hard questions, the flippancy. I felt her go. What could be more serious than a mother’s plans for her son, and what plans were more important than Mrs M.’s? She was trying to get him into one of the ‘best’ schools in London. However, it wasn’t just my tone which grated. She thought I was hinting he would fail. In fact, I was sure he would, though I wasn’t hinting. It was common sense to apply to several schools. But I was talking to Mrs M. She was quieter than usual. She was thinking. She grasped Anna’s leg on the bare skin above the ankle and rubbed her closed fist up and down over the golden curls. Anna shut her eyes. Think and rub. Think, rub. Sleep. A few more moments, and Anna had drifted off. In a way, her mother had too. It was probably then that she decided to sack me.

Mrs M. was going out again, but she promised to be back before we finished. There was a thunderstorm. At every crack of lightning, Henry jumped, really jumped, as a boy does at the master’s cane, in the old days, I mean. He was very nervous, not the type for a high-pressure school. Why should he go to one? Had his mother or father? The 11+ exam. It’s less about the child’s education than the parents’ vanity.

Anna, on the other hand, ignored pressure. She did what she wanted. At the end of the lesson, she parted my shirt between the buttons and peered at my stomach. After a second, she lifted her eyes and did the same at chest level, but this time she said, “Wow!” Her eyes also widened, and she looked a bit longer. Then she asked rather sadly, “Did you ever want to be a girl?”

“Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a girl.”

Laetitia smiled.

“I want to be a man!” said Anna.

“We can swap.”

Laetitia smiled again. I looked around. Henry had disappeared.

“Where’s Henry?”

“He’s having a poo,” said Anna. “He does the biggest poo in the world.”

I realised he’d been doing it every week, disappearing at the end of the lesson and emptying his bowels. What boys say in jest about an unloved teacher had been happening to Henry quite literally.

Mrs M. was late again. During the lesson, there was a series of texts, then a call. She said she’d be there soon. I put the phone down. To Laetitia, I said dramatically, “I’m not going without my money!”

She smiled. Mrs M. called again. She was almost home; she could meet me at the end of the
street, on the corner, if I left now.

“Technically,” I said to Laetitia, “I’m leaving without my money.”

Laetitia smiled once more. To Anna, I confided, “We’re going to meet on a street corner, like spies. It’ll be very exciting. I’ll tell you what happens next week.”

Henry wandered in. When I saw him, I spoke again, but for the first time Laetitia didn’t smile.

“We were just talking about you.”

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The hard g


Mrs M. had the painters in. They were doing the whole house. The carpets were a sea of white sheets, in every room, on every level, on the staircases, too. The men hadn’t started painting. They were preparing the surfaces, as people say. It was that kind of place, that kind of family. You could feel the cracks, if you couldn’t see them.

The painters were Italian, Mrs M. said. It pleased her, quite obviously. Italy is famous for painters. The job they did on her house would be a work of art.

“I lived in Italy for five years,” I said. Her eyes glazed over. “I don’t want to sound as though I’m showing off.”

The little ones were also being naughty. Mrs M. was going out. She had put my money on the table. Max ran off with it. Mrs M. smiled. Anna pulled my tie. Mrs M. smiled.

“Stop being naughty, or I’ll tell Daddy,” she said through a smile. It’s hard to imagine a kinder threat. She had no intention of carrying it out.

“I wear a tie every day,” I observed, in my explaining voice, as if that was the reason Anna pulled it. “Except when I’m sleeping and washing.”

The smile faltered. I looked at the table where the payment had been.

“I was never very good with money.” Pause. “Max has talent. He may end up in a bank.”

When Mrs M. left. Anna hugged me.

“Hallo, Anna 2.” She had a handful of Lego. “Don’t swallow them,” I said. She put one in her mouth straightaway, then turned around and pretended to swallow it. I flicked her right pigtail. She froze, I did it again; still nothing, but the third time, she swivelled about, frowned and forked her fingers at me, as if warding off the Evil Eye, zealously, like the wife of my old landlord in Rome (a dispute over money). This was something just as serious – a dispute over hair.

“Stop being naughty, or I’ll tell Daddy.”

Unlike her mother, she meant it. The dining room floor was covered with toys, on the painters’ sheets. I said, “It looks like a bomb’s gone off.”

Laetitia, the nanny, began tidying up. Perhaps she thought I expected her to. I regretted saying it and went on: “He who made the mess, or she, should clean it up. If your name starts with A or M, you should clean it up.”

“If your name starts with L or G, you should clean it up,” echoed Anna. She did a hard g.

“If you’re little, you can say hard g. Are you little?”

“I’m seven.”

“You’re little.”

Without a word, Laetitia tidied the room. I felt sorry for her. She was about twenty and looked nice. We were comrades too. We both worked for Mrs M. and were both exploited, to some degree. Mrs M. called her a nanny, but nannies look after children. Laetitia did a lot more. She wasn’t so much a nanny as a servant. When someone knocked, she had to open the front door, even if Mrs M. was home. She was a butler, a maid, a cook and no doubt other things, all the roles you find in a stately home. except the groundsman (she never went outside). She didn’t complain, I’m sure. She wanted the money. But the extra tasks disturbed me; and the lady of the house gave her instructions in a hard voice. She didn’t use the same voice on me. I was a lot older than Laetitia, for a start, and my unexpected phrases kept her guessing. She didn’t treat me as a servant because she sensed I wouldn’t let her; I couldn’t care if I worked for her or not.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

I thought you hated me


When I arrived for the next lesson, Anna was standing by the kitchen door. I said hallo. She stared back angrily. I told Mrs M. Her face brightened.

“Did she do that?” she asked, as if her daughter had curtsied. Marvelling, almost admiring. As usual, she was dressed in a kind of uniform. She worked in a bank, I think, or some institution which valued the adherence to rules. She explained I wouldn’t be teaching Anna anymore, just Henry. I had come for two hours and could do only one. It was a problem for my timetable, the kind of thing which upsets a tutor. She hadn’t told me beforehand. Perhaps she didn’t know. Anna probably refused when I came. Why refuse earlier? I mightn’t come. I couldn’t blame Mrs M. Nonetheless, she didn’t apologise. Worse, she didn’t see the need. Anna was being Anna. There was nothing anyone could do.

Mrs M. was being Mrs M. Things didn’t bother her when I thought they should, and bothered her when I didn’t expect. Often, what I said left her tongue-tied, with glazed eyes, like a seven-year-old. Once, I mentioned the library, which was virtually next door.

“Handy for books,” I said encouragingly. Mother, children, books – I couldn’t go wrong. A pane of glass came down on her face, and I knew they had never been.

During Henry’s lesson, I sensed someone creeping behind us.

“Spies will be executed,” I said and turned around. It was Anna. She was holding something, a snail on a piece of glass. I realised she had brought it to show me.

“I thought you hated me,” I said. She came closer, silently; she was concentrating, being careful with the glass. “When you get sick of it, don’t throw it out the window.” We were on the first floor. Silence. “What’s its name?” Again, no answer. “I’ll call it Anna.”

“When mummy calls me, it won’t know who she means.”

“That’s true. We can still call it Anna. You can be Anna 2.” We were taking up Henry’s lesson. He didn’t seem to mind. “She loves me, she loves me,” I chanted quietly. To Henry, I said: “It’s a joyful thing when a girl loves you. You’ll find out one day, if you haven’t already.”

“I don’t like you,” Anna said decisively. The snail wasn’t the only small thing. There was another child, Max, who was five. He walked in and asked me, like an adult, “What’s your name again?”

“Graham. What’s your name, Max?”

“Max.”

Mrs M. had two sets of children: Henry, Anna and Max, and two grown up girls, university students by the look of it, by a former husband, I assume. I saw them once. They had the feel of visitors. I don’t think they lived there, not during term, at least; perhaps not at all. Mrs M. had a ‘new’ family, and she indulged them. They were like a bonus at work or, at her age, retirement gifts, special ones of unusual value, which she hadn’t anticipated. At the same time, she was uncertain. Perhaps I made her nervous. Whatever it was, when the little ones misbehaved, she wasn’t sure what to do. She knew that children needed training, and she may have done it when I wasn’t there – spoken to them crossly, even punished them – but, quite clearly, she didn’t want to.

After the lesson, while I was talking to Mrs M., Max came in shouting.

“He’s trying to drown you out,” she explained. To him, she said nothing, just gazed; marvelling, almost admiring.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Henry and ANNA


One afternoon in early summer, I had a new lesson. The address was a leafy street in central London, away from traffic. I remember walking down the road, the quietness, the sunshine, the patterns of shade. It was an end-of-terrace house. Not the cramped sort you find in the suburbs, this was built with great blocks of stone, on three levels. The whole row looked like a palace, an extra-wide one, a few steps from Paddington library and, on the other side, Royal Oak station, about as solid an address as you can get. Every August bank holiday, Notting Hill carnival winds around not far from their door very close, in fact; they must hear it – but the exuberance passes them by. I’m guessing. I wasn’t there in August. My lessons didn’t last that long.

When I first arrived, Mrs M. let me in. It was the only time. After that, the nanny always opened the door. Mrs M. had a Greek surname, but when I saw her, I thought, She doesn’t look Greek. Her husband was at his desk, a great, wooden thing; solid, like the masonry. He himself was heavy. He turned around and stared at me crossly, as if to say, “I’m too important to talk to you. I’m being polite to humour my wife.”

Mrs M. wanted a tutor for their son, to prepare for the 11+ exam. The boy’s name was Henry, an important one in English history. It was the only imposing thing about him. He was ten, to begin with, and small for his age. He seemed anxious. It was the first lesson. It got worse. No sooner had we sat down at the dining room table than Father came in and stood over him, a huge frame next to the thin body of the child. Henry didn’t look up. At first, the man was silent. He simply stared down at his son. When he spoke, he told Henry to work hard. His voice was cold, like the stare. As far as boys go, I haven’t met one who worked harder or was more good-natured than Henry, to the point of blandness. Father must have known that too, but there he was, like a sovereign suspecting a peasant of betrayal. Was he trying to impress the boy? Or me? I just thought, This man’s a bully.

I don’t remember anything else about that lesson. The following week, Henry wasn’t in. Mrs M. asked me to teach his little sister instead. Henry had warned me about her in a tactful way.

“She’s different from me,” he said without explaining.

“Perhaps she’ll be scared of me,” I replied, holding up my tie and wiggling the end. He smiled weakly. When the little girl appeared, the first thing she did was speak sharply to the nanny, like a cross adult: “What are you doing?”

At the table, she picked up a pen and said, “I’ll show you my handwriting,” though I hadn’t asked. “It’s an Arabic word.”

Squiggles, certainly. She signed it ANNA. The capitals made her name look impressive, like pillars, Greek ones, I suppose. Whatever they meant, the capitals were perfect; they spelt out her opinion of herself.

“Don’t write on your forehead,” I said. I just remember saying it. I don’t remember why. Perhaps I could see some ink. Perhaps there was no reason; I said it to surprise her. With children like Anna, the ordinary tends not to work.

“Apart from that,” I went on, “you can do anything except kick me.”

She kicked me. Not hard. Enough to make a point. There was no song and dance like a Caribbean girl at the carnival. That lesson (the only one with Anna), she was polite. She tolerated me, like her father.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

The sideways heart (revised)


One lunchtime, Varahna the piranha came to visit. I didn’t call her that, though someone did, not a child, either; a member of staff. It was in the yard. The lady hugged her and gave her a kiss. You aren’t meant to, are you – call children names and kiss them? Not in primary school. Not in any school. But Varahna didn’t mind. She stood for a moment, giddy from the hug or the kiss, then grinned. She was a sweet girl.

I hadn’t seen her for a while. She came looking for me. I was alone in Year 5, eating a sandwich. She was alone too.

“You taught us about a rat.”

I did. It was actually a bilby, but it looked like a rat. We called it Bob the bilby. It wasn’t in the lesson plan. I was pleased that she remembered. As we chatted, Varahna drew pictures on the whiteboard with the teacher’s black pen. A Year 5 girl came in to get something. She’d been in once already.

“Varahna, are you still here? Stop bugging sir!”

Then she went out. After a few minutes, Varahna pulled off her headscarf, shook her hair and told me to feel it. She didn’t put the scarf on again. When she left, she was holding it in her hand. I got to the door first and placed my arm across it.

“Password!”

She hesitated, then ducked under – she wasn’t very tall – and scurried off giggling. At the end of lunch, when the children were lining up outside, some Year 5 girls ran over to me. They were breathless.

“Varahna said, ‘I want to kiss Mr Spaid and marry him and live with him and have babies with him.’” I smiled and said she was sweet. They looked surprised. “Do you want me to be angry with her?” The girls were still doubtful, so I added: “It was a bit inappropriate.”

In the classroom, someone saw a drawing on the board, in black pen, in the bottom, right-hand corner. Varahna had rubbed off what she’d done, except for one, little heart. She told me to leave it there. The corner was the safest place, at the bottom (she couldn’t reach the top). The heart was on its side, the pointy bottom facing right, as if it was lying down. 

“Varahna did that,” a boy said. 

“How do you know?” 

“She does hearts like that.”

It wasn’t her first. It got rubbed off, but I didn’t do it. You take care of your little hearts.

On Monday morning, at the girls’ school, I had Year 7. A girl removed her headscarf, like Varahna, but she didn’t speak; she just put it on the desk beside her. Another child glared at her and asked accusingly, “Why did you take your scarf off?”

In the afternoon, I had Year 10. We watched Of Mice and Men. A video is easy in summer term, especially after lunch. They’d read the book, but now all the copies were shut and stacked neatly on the teacher’s table. It was dark and warm inside the room. Heavy curtains kept out the sun but swelled from time to time with a gust of air. We came to the part when Lennie kills Curley’s wife. She tells him to touch her hair. He’s about to touch it; you know he’s going to. A couple of girls called out instinctively, together, like a chorus, “Don’t do it!”

“It’s too late, girls,” I intoned. “There’s nothing you can do. Destiny will take its course.”

The class exploded. Then he killed her, and the bird flapped violently inside the barn. I didn’t find any sympathy among the girls, not for Curley’s wife. She was a man-eater, a slut who had it coming.

“You girls are hard-hearted.”

“Do you feel sorry for her?” someone asked, surprised.

“I feel sorry for everyone.”

I’ll remember that lesson – and the lunch hour, the sideways heart. I’ll remember Varahna the piranha.

Friday, 8 November 2019

You are, you are

The Year 6 teacher was ill, and I was filling in. I didn’t know the class. The first lesson was English, a comprehension. We read through the text together. It was all predictable, all a bit dull, like a normal lesson. Then we came across cadaverous, tripped on it, rather, like a dead body. It’s not a normal Year 6 word. I woke up. I told the children what a cadaver was.

“It’s a metaphor here. Your teacher goes to a party and has too much to drink. In the morning, when she wakes up, she looks in the mirror. What do you think she sees?”

“A dead body,” someone said. The children had woken up too.

“Then she calls in sick, and I come.”

I smiled wryly. For a minute or so, we discussed the metaphor, how their teacher could resemble a corpse. There was a pause.

“You’re the best teacher we’ve ever had.”

A boy said it, a couple of desks away. I turned to him.

“Really?”

“You are, you are!” said a girl with wide eyes in the row behind him. The lesson continued. Some children were misbehaving. The boy was one of them.

“If I was the best teacher you’ve ever had, you wouldn’t misbehave, would you?”

He smiled wryly. I don’t remember his name, but the girl with wide eyes was Mahjida. Her family was from Afghanistan. I teased her when I knew her better. When I said her name, I emphasised the Mah. I stretched it out: “Hello, M-a-hjida” or “Yes, M-a-hjida.” I said her name when I didn’t need to, just to play with it. The children noticed, quite naturally.

“Why do you say M-a-hjida?” someone asked.

“I like it. I think she likes it too.”

Mahjida. The name means glorious. Whenever we met, she gave me a hug. She didn’t run like Varahna. She was two years older. She stepped up demurely and put her arms around me. Once, she did it in the line for assembly. I was standing near the entrance to the hall. As she walked past, she hugged me in front of everybody.

She had several cousins, all girls. The ones I knew were younger than her, in other classes. Their names all began with Ma, like Mahtab and Masooma – moonlight and sinless. They all wore headscarves to conceal their hair, and they all had trousers when they went swimming.

“It’s our religion,” the youngest explained.

Mahjida had one more cousin, Marzia, in Year 5. Marzia was different. For a start, as you can see, her name had an r in it, and the meaning wasn’t so positive. Marzia was satisfactory. There was another difference.

One day, I mentioned Mahjida to her.

“Oh, Mahjida!” she groaned. “She thinks you’re the best teacher ever!”

“Mahjida loves me. Masooma loves me. Mahtab loves me,” Pause. “You love me.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Yes, you do, deep down. You just don’t know it.” A longer pause. “I saw your hair in Year 4.”

“Fine!”

They should have called her Marwa. That means stone.