The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 8 December 2018

A consul in Salonica


I decided to go to Mt Athos. You need a special permit, a diamonitirion. Nowadays, they’re granted by the Pilgrims’ Office in Salonica. Back then, you had to arrange it through a consulate. There was no Australian consulate in Salonica, so I used the British one. I was lucky. It meant meeting Terry. I’ll call him that, but it’s not his real name.

He was sitting at a vast, wooden desk on a great armchair, as befits Her Majesty’s Consul. An imposing man, Terry had delicate skin, which gleamed slightly – and oddly, as he must have been sixty. Perhaps he was sweating, though it wasn’t hot. It was only March. His face was sun-burnt already. He had wispy blonde hair, not balding, and blue eyes that shone like his skin, weakly. I could see some excess flesh. He wore a tie and a bulky shirt with blue and white stripes. All he needed was a cap, and you’d have a British schoolboy, a big, old-fashioned one. More than anything, I was struck by his gentleness. This, too, may have been excessive.

I introduced myself. The first thing he did was call the British embassy in Athens. I didn’t understand. He wasn’t discussing my trip. Nor was he posing. A consul doesn’t have to. In fact, when he spoke, he was self-effacing, even with me, and especially on the phone to the embassy. At first, he didn’t give his name – no rank-pulling from Terry – and when he did, he muttered it, just the surname, apologetically, like a schoolboy owning up.

He was dealing with a drugs arrest. A real boy had been really naughty, an eighteen-year-old, Terry said, when his phone call was finished.

“He claimed he hitched a lift and the driver raped him. It was hard to believe. I said, ‘You would have fought him off; a strong lad like you.’”

Terry fell silent and gazed before him, as if he was looking at the boy. The anecdote surprised me. It was consular business, no names, but I wondered why he’d told me. There was something intimate about it. I’d only known him for a few minutes. He also had a habit of repeating the last words you spoke, in a thoughtful tone, to show he valued them. I didn’t like it, but I liked Terry.

He described some of the drawbacks of visiting Mt Athos: poor transport, no women or meat; I said it didn’t matter about the meat; I was vegetarian.

“Do you ever eat it?”

“No, I couldn’t keep it down.”

“Couldn’t keep it down.”

He nodded while he said it, like a man learning. As for the lack of women, he quipped that it didn’t matter either. He said they were jealous because they couldn’t go, and took revenge by hiring boats, then lounging naked in front of the monasteries. He chuckled, but it was true.

He was planning a trip himself in his role as consul. He asked if I wanted to join the official party.

“We’ll get to use the jeep.”

It was the sort of thing a small boy would say. I liked him even more. I said yes. There was an ex-pat called Bryan who had also agreed to go. Terry was after one more person (“to make up a decent party”); two pairs, so no one felt ignored on the narrow paths. He asked me if I knew anyone. I thought of Manur. He was still in Salonica. In some ways, he was perfect: male, unassuming (on the surface) and unattached – there’d be no cross women at home, not in Greece, anyway – and he fancied himself as a traveller. He’d flown from India, for a start. We’d also spent a weekend at the Metéora. That’s monasteries too. He appeared to enjoy himself. The next time I saw him, I asked if he’d like to go to Athos. He said he would.

We discussed what to take. I pulled out my travel stuff. I had two maps of the world, not much use on Athos, and I didn’t need both. I offered one to Manur. Stupidly, I let him choose. He opened out the maps side by side, compared them with great concentration for a long while, then took the better, more expensive one.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

I might drown

The following lesson, Lyan was late home. I taught Sweetie first. She was excited.

“I’m having ice cream after.”

Her class teacher hadn’t set any homework. I gave a comprehension, the town mouse and the country mouse. Two little creatures all they talked about was food. When the half-hour was up, she went to get her ice cream. It was a chocolate-covered bar on a stick. She wanted to eat it beside me while I taught Lyan, but his chair was in the way. She couldn’t squeeze past, and he wouldn’t move. She was about to crawl under the table, holding the ice cream.

“Give it to me,” I said. “You might drop it.”  She was doubtful. “I promise I won’t eat it.”

“Don’t let Lyan have it!”

She passed it to me, then got down on her hands and knees. I studied the treasure I was holding. Lyan chanted.

You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie. You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie. You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie.”

A little voice rose. It seemed a long way off.

“I can’t do it!”

Sweetie backed out from under the table. The ice cream was starting to drip.

“Filsan, get a plate,” said Lyan. He didn’t call her Sweetie. She looked at the ice cream, then at me. I nodded. She was gone a while.

“I’ll hold it,” Lyan offered.

I nearly passed it to him – I really did – but I remembered.

“I promised Sweetie.”

She finally returned.

“I couldn’t reach the plates,” she explained.

Lyan let her pass. There wasn’t much space. She held her hands above her head, clutching the plate. An elbow quivered. She couldn’t bend her arm. It was paralysed. I hadn’t known. Meanwhile, ice cream was running down my fingers. Lyan noticed too.

“Filsan, get a spoon.”

He was deadpan. She had just squeezed past him with great trouble. She hesitated, only a second. It was too long for the ice cream. It slipped off the stick, over my knuckles and onto the carpet. I’d seen girls cry, lots of them, but not Sweetie. She had come to sit with me. The ice cream had too, in a way. They simply couldn’t do it together. It was a lesson in itself, a cruel one: irony. I was there with my tutor stuff; I witnessed the lesson, though I didn’t teach it, not to a seven-year-old. Lyan wasn’t happy. He missed out on the treat. Auntie wasn’t happy. It stained the carpet. Still, when the last smear had vanished, the ice cream didn’t matter anymore to anyone but Sweetie – and me; I was the main reason she lost it.

When I was leaving, she watched me tie my laces. She had stopped crying, but she was miserable.

“I’m going swimming tomorrow. I might drown.”

“You might. You’ll be careful, though, won’t you?”

A hug, our second. There wasn’t a third. It was the last time I saw her. She didn’t drown. I heard her voice a week later. Four words. When I knocked, no one answered. It was pouring with rain. There was no shelter. I knocked again.

“There it is again!”

A little voice, a long way off. Lyan opened the door. His mother was on the sofa. It surprised me. She was never in. No Sweetie, though I’d heard her voice, and no money. Mother said so. She was ill and couldn’t make it to the cash machine. If I taught Lyan today, she’d pay me next lesson.

“I should be all right then.”

The day arrived. I knocked as usual, but Auntie blocked the passage. She hadn’t done that before. Mother was sick, she said. I couldn’t do the lesson. The door to the living room was shut. It had always been open. I pictured Lyan’s mother on the sofa. She was there – I could feel it – her face stiff with anger. Illness made her cross, apparently.

Lyan walked down the stairs, holding the money for the unpaid lesson.

“Mother is at the clinic.”

Monday, 8 October 2018

Hedgehog sweet

It was half-term. At Lyan’s place, there were more shoes by the door than ever. His cousins were staying. All girls, by the look of it. When I came in, they were standing at the top of the stairs. The tutor was here, a strange man. Girls want to see. They must have felt safe on the landing. I wasn’t going up, and they weren’t coming down, except for Sweetie. How many girls, I couldn’t say. They were close together, in bright clothes, the colours mixing, and I didn’t like to stare.

“Girls,” I muttered. “It’s going to be noisy.”

It was quiet at the moment. They were shy, or Auntie had hushed them – both, probably. In their silence, however, I spotted something else: disappointment. I’d be there for two lessons, an hour and a half. It was a long time to be quiet.

Lyan was in the living-room, but he wasn’t ready. He never was. When I got there, he’d be eating or playing a game on the computer. Today, he was praying. I moved in behind him. He was kneeling down, leaning forward, then getting up again. He did it methodically, repeatedly, each sequence an image of the last. He was focused, as you’d expect from someone praying, if not from Lyan. It was Ramadan. He wore traditional dress, a long, white robe and skull cap, which was also white, embroidered, with a pattern of holes. He was immaculate; in short, a new Lyan. When he’d finished praying, I asked him, “What have you done this week?”

“I went to Oxford Street.”

“Did you buy anything interesting?”

Boxes. 

“Boxes,” I echoed and glanced around. He had done well. The room was full of boxes. They were even on the sofa, where we normally sat, stacked to the ceiling. “Boxford Street.”

We sat at the table instead. Lyan cleared a path through the boxes and other piles.

You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life. You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life. You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life.”

“Boxers!” I erupted. Sweetie walked in grinning. She had come alone, like a forward scout. The others were still upstairs. She was on the carpet, but she wasn’t praying; she was watching television, and she wasn’t fasting; she had a Chinese takeaway. The container was on the floor in front of her. She bent forward, as Lyan did when he was praying.

“I’m wearing shorts,” she said.

“They’re very pretty.”

Lyan snorted. Sweetie ignored him. She had a takeaway menu.

“What’s your favourite dish?” I asked. She couldn’t pronounce Szechuan, but I couldn’t either. “Is there hedgehog sweet?”

“No! You can’t eat them!”

“They could eat you. You’re very sweet.”

Lyan snorted again, even louder. It was his lesson, and there I was, chatting to Sweetie. When all the work was done, and all the chatting, Auntie paid me, but only her portion. This week, Lyan’s mother hadn’t left the money. Auntie pondered. She had some shopping to do; we could go to the cash machine. We set off. I latched the gate behind us. The upstairs window swung open, and girls leaned out, laughing, jostling, waving and calling. For ninety minutes, they’d controlled themselves. The noise had been smothered, like embers sealed in a box. Not any longer. Flames shot through the window. Auntie was beside me. The girls had seen her, but they didn’t care. Auntie did. She yelled in Arabic, prompt, brutal, and the flames went out.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Can I eat Graham?

Lyan’s Auntie asked me to help Filsan with her homework, half an hour a week, after his lesson. The girl was in Year 2. Next time, when I walked in, she was sitting on the carpet, reading aloud from a book. She kept doing it after I started with Lyan. Auntie came in.

“Is anyone being naughty?”

Silence.

“Are you being naughty?” I asked Lyan. He was bigger than me.

“No,” he responded, seriously.

“Are you being naughty?” I asked Filsan.

“No!” she responded, more seriously. She also shook her head.

“Am I being naughty?”

Filsan grinned. Auntie smiled, said no too, then went out. It was obvious. In our own way, we were all being naughty.

I’d brought a comprehension for Lyan. It was about camping.

“Have you ever been camping?” I asked.

“Pilgrimage to Mecca.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes. You shouldn’t be afraid, should you, Graham? You shouldn’t be afraid! You shouldn’t be afraid, should you, Graham? You shouldn’t be afraid. You shouldn’t be afraid, should you, Graham? You shouldn’t be afraid!”

“No, Lyan, you shouldn’t be afraid.”

He chanted every lesson. The message was different.

“Can I use your pen, Graham? Can I use your pen?”

His was fine. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked the pen from my hand.

“Can I eat, Graham?”

I was tiring of his questions.

“Can you eat Graham?” I replied. Filsan turned her head, her eyes sparkling. “Haven’t you had dinner?” Lyan shook his head. I felt sorry for him. “That’s terrible. When did you last eat?”

“Morning. Can I eat now?”

“Go and ask Auntie.”

He dropped his head and didn’t mention food anymore. We worked for a while, then I asked, “Can I have the light on, please?”

“I don’t need it.”

Filsan tensed.

I do,” I said. He still didn’t move. I almost got up, but I was the teacher, and Filsan was watching with her warm eyes. It might confuse her.

“Filsan, can I call you Sweetie?” I tend to ask girls that, if they’re sweet. She nodded gravely. “Can you put the light on, please?” She did it at once. When she returned to the carpet, I said, “Thanks, Sweetie.”

Lyan laughed, the only time I heard him, and we had months of lessons.

“It’s not funny!” she cried. Silence. Back to English. I had a spelling question for Lyan.

"Give me a word with a silent letter.”

“No.”

Sweetie gaped  at Lyan, then at me. I was expecting knee or knock. It was hard to believe. Lyan had no malice. He could say stupid things, but so could I. He was sitting there as placid as ever, as if he knew what he’d said was right.

“You mean know!”

I spoke too loudly. Sweetie grinned again. At last, the hour was up. It was her turn now. She was waiting on the carpet, with a book in her lap, open at the page she’d chosen. In book terms, in sums and words, she was on a par with Lyan, but I couldn’t help thinking that she understood more. Imagine it, Lyan and his big, bare belly, sprawled on a tiny chair in a class of seven-year-olds.

There was a spelling list to learn. She had to put each word in a sentence. The first was animal.

“I stepped on a hedgehog.”

She really did.

“Excellent.” The sentence, I meant. “Write it down.”

The sentence had to include the word animal. I forgot, but so did Sweetie. It’s tough in Year 2. She showed me her knee. She’d hurt it at school.

“Did you cry?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you think hedgehogs cry?”

“No!” she said, in her deep voice. She went quiet. I thought she’d changed her mind – of course hedgehogs cried; everyone knew they did. But she stretched her arms out and hugged me. Lyan saw. His head dropped again.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Have you met Ken Livingstone?

Lyan had a rickety front gate. It was also very low. To open it, you had to bend down, and then a hinge squeaked loudly. He would have heard it from the house. Each time I went, I thought to myself: Why knock? They know I’m here. But I knocked all the same. On my first visit, the curtain moved. A face appeared, then withdrew, and the curtain fell back. Lyan opened the door and said straightaway, without a greeting, “Have you met Ken Livingstone?”

He wasn’t joking. When he asked, I didn’t understand, but it must have been my clothes. On the walk from the station, every week, I only saw one tie. In Lyan’s view, I looked like an old mayor of London or, at least, someone smart enough to meet him.

“Take your shoes off, Graham.”

On my left lay a staircase to the upper floor. At the bottom, there was a mass of footwear, like a thick pool, as if it had washed down and settled. The house, small already, was silting up with shoes. I wondered how many people lived there.

Lyan went through a door into the living room. I found him on the sofa having dinner and watching television, the Mecca prayer channel. His family was north African. He needed help, his mother said, in maths and English. She wasn’t home yet. I sat with Lyan. When he’d eaten, he put his bowl on the floor.

“I want to go to university, Graham.”

He was the right age, eighteen or so. He had the temperament, too. He was very serious. We did a maths example. He used his fingers, grabbing each one in his fist and chanting.

“18 add 6. 18 add 1, 19; add 2, 20; add 3, 21; add 4, 22; add 5, 23; add 6, 24. 18 add 6 is 24!”

Lyan turned to me. He wasn’t checking. He was proud of himself. He leaned back and, for a minute or so, stared at the wall. It was a long while in the middle of maths. The shirt flaps parted on his belly. If this happened, and it did quite a lot, you could see his rolls of flesh. When he came to, he began chanting again, forcefully.

“I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed! I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed! I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed!”

A little girl entered with a bowl of food. This was Filsan, Lyan’s cousin. Like him, she didn’t say hallo. Little girls don’t have to. She crossed her legs on the carpet, facing the television, with her back to us. There were green pieces in the bowl, but I couldn’t tell what they were.

“What have you got in that big bowl?”

“Pizza.”

“With brussels sprouts.”

“No!”

She said it in a deep voice, like a groan. Lyan leaned back and sneezed. A giant sneeze. He didn’t cover his nose. Spray filled the air above the table, glinted for a second, then sank in a pretty mist on my question sheet, on his writing pad, on his big, bare belly. When the air cleared, he coughed in my face.

The lesson finished. Auntie gave me the money. Lyan padded after me to the front door, with Filsan behind him. He chanted once more, a single line, quietly: “I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed!”

Filsan smiled, then peered at me, her eyes shining.

“He’s a lion!”

Sunday, 8 July 2018

I’m going to get you sacked


It was the final lesson, though I didn’t know. Nunu did. She made a mess in her book, the deluxe tome her mother had bought, meaning to inspire her. It inspired her, all right. A whole page was covered in scribble, great, jagged lines. Nunu had succeeded at last, done her best and got it all right. It was perfect scribble. She looked pleased. She’d expressed an opinion. What’s more, she’d done it in front of me.

“The rabbit did that,” I said, then set some maths questions. She got the first one wrong. “Don’t worry.” I consoled. “If girls knew everything, I wouldn’t have a job.” There was a note of irony. She would have heard it. “You don’t even know my name.” She didn’t speak. “It’s all right. I’m not proud. You can call me Greg.”

“Graham,” she corrected, kindly. It was the last lesson.

“I know teenagers who haven’t heard of Pompeii. One boy I teach – he’s in Year 9 – didn’t know what toffee was.” Pause. “If you can’t do a question, just go on to the next one.”

Nunu smiled, then went on answering. For the first time in weeks, she looked keen; she worked fast. She wasn’t reading the questions. She put a dash for every answer. At the end – it didn’t take long – she threw her pen down like a victor’s sword: “I can’t do any of them!”

“That was silly.”

“I don’t care.”

“The lesson’s finished. Now you’ve answered those questions, we’ll have to correct them. I was going to do something else next week.”

“You won’t be here next week. I’m going to get you sacked.”

“It’s not a good idea. You won’t get more free time. Your mother will just find another tutor.”

“I won’t have any tutor.”

“Yes, you will, someone who’s professional and mean and won’t let you do what you want – as I do,” I added, in case she’d forgotten. “There’s always another tutor.” Pause. “I’m not resigning. Good luck, though.”

Three days later, I got a call from mother. When I didn’t answer, she left a message. She asked me to call her back. She didn’t explain, but it sounded serious, like a funeral. In a way, it was. I called back.

“Sorry I missed you.”

“Your phone was on. It was ringing.”
I sensed a reprimand. I wondered if she was cross. Mothers can be.
“It was on silent.”
“I wanted to have some discussions.” An odd phrase. Her voice was odd too. “I’m deciding the best way to move ahead.” It wasn’t a real discussion. She didn’t want my opinion. Like Nunu, she’d made up her mind already. But she sacked me gently. Nunu didn’t do that. “I think I’ll tutor her myself.”

It’s what mothers say when their child rejects a tutor – me, anyway. It’s happened more than once. Nunu’s mother didn’t know. These were her first ‘discussions.’ She meant well. When she hired me, she was doing her best for Nunu. When she sacked me, gently, she was doing her best for me. I felt sorry for her.

My last memory of Nunu. The lesson was over. We were at the door. I was outside, looking back. She stood behind her mother, jumping up so I could see her, putting out her tongue and smiling, twitching her nose, with her hands on her head, like ears. 

Outside, looking back. I found a piece of paper in my bag, the other day, when I wasn’t thinking about Nunu. It was a recycled sheet, a photocopy, which I’d put there for the lesson, for Xs and Os or other scribble, so she wouldn’t spoil her book, and mother wouldn’t know. At the end, I’d take the sheet with me. I did too, but we never got to use it. There was no scribble, just a poem on the other side. Nunu didn’t do that. Still, the sheet had meaning, the sort of thing that makes a tutor sad. Not this time, not this tutor. I threw it away.