“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.