The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A girl called Gherkin

“The daughter’s name is Gherkin.” 

That’s what I thought they said.  The tuition agency was offering me a job.  The girl's name was Gurkiran, but it came out pickled cucumber on the phone.  

Teachers get things wrong.  A Year 6 class was doing some work on London landmarks.  The Tower of London, Big Ben, the usual monuments.  The Gherkin was also on the list.  Again, not the real name.  If you don’t know this building, the nickname gives some clues about its shape and colour, although the classic vegetable won’t stand up on its end.

The regular teacher, another classic vegetable, had been joking about the Gherkin with her class.  It was obvious from the notes on the board.  They’d had a brainstorming session.  The names of certain monuments were there, in random places.  Each name was in a box shaped like a potato, with little lines sticking out like toothpicks, and words or phrases which the children had supplied.  There was nothing negative until it came to Gherkin, which had things like ‘silly’ and ‘awful’ labelled on it.

The Tower of London is not very funny.  Someone might think it was, but they’d keep it to themselves.  The Gherkin is different.  It hasn’t been around so long.  It must be a silly building because it’s got a silly name.  So much for new perspectives in architecture.  

Words, like buildings, come in and out of fashion.  We no longer have brainstorms, do we, or spider diagrams?   We have the mind map.  It's meant to be inspiring, or at least not so scary.  I said ‘meant to be.’  You wouldn’t want a map of what’s in my head.  We can’t stop our thoughts, but we can clean up what we say.  You know the examples.  People are enabled now, not disabled, let alone crippled. 

The words are new, but the ideas aren’t.  Children still do their brainstorms like clouds, with little lines that stick out round the edge.  One class was doing the London Blitz.  I was monitoring their work, peering over shoulders in my irritating way.

The session was almost finished.  One boy had only done the outline of his cloud.  He hadn’t even written The Blitz inside.  It was on white paper.  The cloud was horizontal, plump and fluffy, too fluffy, even for a child's cloud.  In a pleasant voice,  I said it looked like a sheep.  Then, as there were no lines poking out, I said it looked like a legless sheep, and pressed home quickly with: “You’ve drawn a disabled sheep!”

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Dead Dave

Expat parties in Salonica were, and probably still are, the kind you tolerate for a while, until the boys start throwing beer at one other.  My memories of Dead Dave come from a single night, and I was drinking too, so I could be wrong.  But I don’t think I am.

There were two Daves.  I only remember Dead Dave.  A wag found the right word to put before his name, something which was cruel, but funny, as cruel things often are, one which summed him up like a character in a play, alliterating, with a metaphor.  It wouldn’t have worked with Jack or Sidney. The Dead bit made us laugh, and it distinguished him from the other Dave, who must have been a bubblier sort.  The name was perfect, but no one said it to his face.  He was big.  

Looking back, the party that night was like Weekend at Bernie's.  Remember the film?  The Italian name is better, Weekend con il mortoDead Dave was fascinating the way a corpse is fascinating.  If you could, you’d have the body taken away.  Meanwhile, you can’t forget it’s there.   Your eyes keep travelling back, although you don’t speak to it.  No one spoke to Dead Dave.  People must have given up trying.  As far as I could see, he didn’t talk, or even move a lot.  He did lift his glass of beer, and he did put his arm around a Greek girl, ignoring all the English ones, who weren’t so delicate, but only when she came close enough – quite often, actually – because, like Bernie, he never left his chair. 

The Greek girl, I don’t recall her name, wore tight, black leather and rode a motorbike.  She had a boyish figure and a big, powerful bike.  An English girl told me that she couldn’t pick it up if it fell over, implying that she wasn’t just weak, but stupid, too.  I remember seeing her once, next to the bike when it had toppled over.  She was waiting for someone to pick it up.  It looked as if it didn’t belong to her. 

I asked her for some Greek lessons, just conversation.  Sunday morning, I knocked.  She had forgotten, and slept in, but not by herself.  Whoever was in the next room, it wasn’t Dead Dave.  A Greek was in her bed, parroting my pronunciation.  Dead Dave didn’t laugh like that.  Dead Dave didn’t laugh. Prised away from one boy, she had simply found another.  I had to pay to talk.  The boys made love for free.

At first, the mocking noises made her frown, but then she smiled, as if she had remembered something.  The boy was cheeky.  The boy was confident.  I pictured him on the bed.  It wasn’t hard, to picture him, I mean.  I never felt the bed.  He wasn’t as dull, and he wasn’t as heavy, as Dead Dave was.  She had pushed him off, at least.  Try doing that to your Dead Dave, or your dead motorbike.  

Dead Dave.  It would have been an English girl who first called him that.

My tutor handed me a graphic novel, an erotic one, with big willies.  She laughed and said she liked them, the novels, I mean.  I pictured her in bed as well.  To teach in, she had put a bathrobe on, something thin that fell down to the knee.  In leather, she was delicate.  She was even more delicate now.  I looked for signs.  Her hair was slightly messed, but sometimes mine is too.  It doesn’t mean a Greek boy has been lying on top of me.  They were sleeping when I knocked.  You can’t make love forever.  You can’t keep the world at bay for very long at all.  

Sunday, 14 December 2014

I nearly wrote the phrase ‘thick with sleep’

I nearly wrote the phrase thick with sleep, but it came into my head too easily.  It must have been used before.  I did a Google search, and this came up, by an author rated in the book clubs:
‘At night, the house thick with sleep, she would peer out her bedroom window at the trees and sky and feel the presence of a mystery.’
It’s going to be a thriller, you can feel it.  The tickle of mystery will turn into assault, but, for the moment, you’re safe and warm.  The style is reassuring – the clichés and the flat rhythm.  There’s a good read here, you won’t be too surprised, or too upset, and you’ll be home safe and warm at the end. 
She peered out.  A woman’s point of view, and they don’t like everything.  I was sitting in the staff room at the girls’ school.  Some teachers were discussing Fifty Shades of Grey.  A young lady said it was demeaning to women, and not well-written. I’ve read enough to know that men are in it, too.  You could just as well say it was demeaning to them, or to no one.  Whether it’s well-written, how many books are?
After lunch, an even younger lady opened the book in front of me.  Year 10 Science.  Fifty Shades of Grey.  I couldn’t say no.  She had finished her work.  She wasn’t a bad girl, like those who sit on the classroom floor, smoke e-cigarettes, and don’t read at all.  I took the book from her, quite casually, looked at the page she was reading, then gave it back.  I said it was Harry Potter for adults.  She disagreed.  I meant how the volume felt in my hand, plump and shiny.  Other girls had copies, too, or a different book in the series, on the desk beside them, or in their bags.  They were doing the classwork first. 
Good girls do what Sir says.  An academic recently complained that calling teachers Sir or Miss is “depressing, sexist and gives women in schools a lower status than their male counterparts.”  The BBC quoted: ‘Sir is a knight... but Miss is ridiculous - it doesn't match Sir at all.’
In the classroom it does.  A word can have more than one meaning, and context will determine which.  In the classroom, Sir is not a knight, and Miss is not ridiculous.  I have taught in schools where the children use Sir and Madam, like a formal letter.  It’s so equal it hurts.  Let Miss teach; let her run her school, and Madam run her brothel. 
We can’t say Headmistress, either.  It means ‘top lover,’ from the male point of view.  I still prefer Miss.  Your Mrs isn’t usually your lover.  We need to look at menopause, and the expression Oh boy!  But there’s one more problem.  We can’t fix everything.  There aren’t enough words to go round.  
For some of us, there are still too many pronouns.  She peered out.  Or he, or it.  In a book club interview, a writer explained why she used the pronoun she for both male and female characters.  She had tried using he for everybody, but ‘it reinforced the idea of a masculine default, and did nothing at all to make the world seem gender-neutral or uncaring about gender.’
So she replaced one gender pronoun with another.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

THE AUTHORS! In an adventure with TEACHERS

You know the expression Children should be seen and not heard.  Well, writers should be read and not seen; some, not even read. 

It’s very common here for children's authors to visit primary schools.  They come to do a 'workshop' with a class or two, and put a story together.  It's meant to inspire the children to write.  It's really just a marketing trick, part of their contract with the publisher.  After school, they try to sell their books.  I remember one author.  He was sitting in the corner of an empty hall, behind his stacks of unwanted titles, like a failed book-signing. 

One day, I got my own author.  I’d never heard of him and I don’t remember his name.  He was middle-aged.  He'd set his books up on the teacher’s desk.  They were tempting.  Each cover had a different candy colour.  He was waiting next to them.

“Hello.  Sorry we’re late,” I said brightly.  No answer.  The Year 4s filed in.  “I’m not the normal teacher.  I do supply.”  No answer either.  Our champion of literacy, if not the spoken word, surveyed the children, who had sat down on the carpet.  Their questions were predictable, but – and I digress – he wasn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury, the one with the eyebrows, who once came to a school where I was working.  After each commonplace question, the churchman paused gravely as if it was something he needed to think about.  You could almost hear him count to five.  Our author didn’t have that sort of patience, or that dignity.  He had the look, rather, of a man who wished he was somewhere else.

“How many books have you written?”

“Around twenty, but they weren’t all published.  Some are better than others.  My publisher only picks the best ones.”

I wanted to put my hand up.  I wanted to ask him what he meant by ‘best.’  Ideas?  Writing style?  Earning potential?  He didn’t say it, but he let the children think, as everybody thinks, that the best books are always published. 

The workshop began.  It produced all the clichés in children’s fiction – except the fat boy with glasses.  The author suggested a girl who didn’t like sport, but, in general, he let convention lie.  Soon, the children wished they were somewhere else as well.     

If you’re a child and you want to get out of a classroom, there are lots of excuses you can make.  The toilet, or you feel sick, have been injured, or need to fill your water bottle, find your jumper in the playground, or give something to someone in another class.  I usually say no, it’s wasting time, but today the reasons all seemed genuine.  As one child after another raised their little hand, I allowed each one to go.  Others, I evicted.  Fooling around again.  Meanwhile, our hero did his workshop, or tried toNo more distractions now. 

He read out a passage from one of his books.  Some boys, aged nine, were talking about their day at school: “He's a supply teacher, and you know what they’re like.” 

Hardly the words of a nine-year-old.  Of all the middle-aged dialogues in all the pretty books in his display, he had chosen this one.  Unless he improvised.

A girl I'd just punished turned to me and grinned.  Revenge can be very sweet.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Graham and Cinzia

One day, Cinzia came to see me.  She was by herself.  I didn’t mind, I mean whether she came or not.  It was her revenge on Graeme, the husband who stopped loving her and went with other women.
“I’ll show him!”
The exact words she used, in her head, I’m sure they were, before she came to see me.
In Salonica, the 23 bus starts near the waterfront, runs quickly over the flat ground, then winds up the hill.  It’s usually over-loaded.  The way up to the Old Town is nice and steep.  To anyone who’s travelling, the bus feels heavy on the road, as if it doesn’t want to go.  It’s one of my favourite buses.
You take a bus for a reason.  There’s something you have to do.  When the 23 that was carrying Cinzia got to the arch at the top of the hill, it reversed and turned right, as it always does.  It’s just too big to get through.  Cinzia got off, walked underneath the arch, as you had to if you were coming to my house, and tapped on the door.  She didn’t tell me she was coming.  She probably didn’t know until she came.
The first thing she did, before we sat down, was wrap her arms around me, and hug me very tightly, face to face.  Then she lifted me.  My feet were off the floor.  After that, I don’t remember much.  Did we even sit down?  I don’t know.  I didn’t black out.  Maybe not much happened.  She held me in the air, like a bunch of pillows, although you don’t squeeze pillows so hard, so close to you.  She said things, too.
“People might think it’s strange, me being here alone with you.”
I don’t know if Graeme was people.  We hadn’t touched before.  It was straight to the embrace.
“Why are you so skinny?”
She put some stress on skin.  Was she lifting other men, frequenting the Old Town, hugging around?
She held me near the fridge.  It was second-hand.  Things, like people, got passed around.  I bought it from an English girl when she was leaving, squat and yellowish – the fridge, not the girl.  I don’t know if it was made that way, or went yellow over time, like paper.  The trademark Spring was stamped on the front; something built to stop things getting warm, something so decrepit.  It sat there humming coldly.  Sometimes it snored.
She was showing him.
“I hated you when I first met you!”
Still saying things, too.  I almost fired back, “I really liked you.”  But there was no point in being cruel.  She wouldn’t have understood, and she was still holding me. 
People noticed Cinzia.  She was in her twenties, fair-haired, light-skinned.  Her arms and legs turned caramel in the Greek sun.  A deeper layer every time you saw her.  She was boyish, in spirit as well as build.  She reminded me of a classmate in Year 7, a boy I knew for a long time, but who looked like her most when he was twelve.
She put me down before she left.  As she was going, she hesitated.  Her hand was on the door.
“I don’t know where Graeme is.”
She didn’t wait for an answer.  There wasn’t any.  I felt sorry for her now, now that she was leaving.  I didn’t see her again.
She’d shown him, wherever he was.
I saw Graeme in Singapore, months later, in the airport transit lounge.  We were changing planes.  We were there an hour or two.  You can live in the same house and not see someone. 

Cinzia re-married.  She had Graeme’s books.  He wanted them.  She and the new man were keen he didn’t get them. 

Still showing him. 
She had lifted me as you lift a child, too easily.  The fridge was snoring.  I could have slept with her.   

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Graeme and Cinzia

For the expat in Salonica, there were more eating places than sexual partners.  If you left out the ones that were too noisy, were full of smoke, or stank of retsina, there weren’t so many places, but there weren’t so many partners, either.

When it came to swapping soul mates, Graeme with an e was pretty quick, like the rest of us, though he wasn’t so quick at everything.  I said I might go and work in Pakistan.  His face brightened.  Looking back, he probably just wanted to get rid of me, but at the time I said pleasantly, “You could do it too.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you could.”

“I’m telling you I couldn’t.”

I didn’t know him well enough then.  He was certainly edgy.  I thought he missed his wife, who was still in Australia.  He told me she was coming over soon.  I tried another genial comment, one that couldn’t fail. 

“That’s good news.”

“Is it?”

His wife’s name was Cinzia, pronounced chintzier, with an ee if you’re Italian, although she wasn’t.  We had a meal when she arrived.  She told me how they met.  She was studying.

“He was the coolest tutor at uni.” 

Then she giggled knowingly at Graeme.

“You had a ponytail!”

It was a loving giggle, too.  I pictured the ponytail.  Graeme turned his face away, like an aside in a play, and twisted it.  It was the last time I saw them together.

Someone organised a day trip to Litóchoron, the village at the bottom of Mt Olympus.   Climbers go there before they set off for the peak.  We weren’t doing that today, just having a nice walk on the paths around the village.  

I kept sniggering.

“I wish you wouldn’t laugh like that,” someone said.

“I'm laughing at Cinzia.”

“I know.”

“Did you see her earrings?” someone asked. 

“They’re not earrings,” I replied. “They’re portable televisions.”

Graeme hadn’t come.  For the wife, it was another pointless trip, a mountain that she wasn’t going to climb. 

I thought I'd drop in and see him.  I didn't quite make it.  There was a café between the bus stop and his flat, and I saw him with a girl who wasn’t Cinzia.  They were sitting at an outside table, not a good place if you'd rather not be seen.  Perhaps he didn’t care, or had nothing to hide.  Still, in the half second before he saw me, I felt that something needed to be hidden.  I wasn’t sure what.  They were earnest, not overly romantic, but his body had more meaning than when Cinzia was around.  The moment he noticed me, whatever it was fell away.  He wasn’t expecting visitors.  Not Graham with an h, anyway.  I could tell from his face.

The three of us had a conversation, a sad, disturbing conversation.  At times like this, you pick something neutral to talk about, like cats or travel.  You can’t go wrong there.  I mentioned my trip to Vergina, where they found Philip of Macedon’s tomb, but I pronounced it the wrong way.  The woman laughed.  “I like that – excavating vagina.”

When no one else laughed, she apologised.  Silence.  Her face brightened again.  She turned to Graeme the way I used to do, with encouragement: “You said you were going to Pakistan.”

Friday, 14 November 2014

Graeme with an e

I need to clear up one thing straightaway.  On this page, I make a lot of references to a person called Graeme.  I am not talking about myself.  It wouldn’t be much of a trick, would it?  I couldn’t fool all of you. 

Graeme with an e was someone I knew in Greece.  He was actually a lot like me.  For a start, he was annoying.  He thought he was clever, and didn’t miss an opportunity to prove it.  He shot laconic sentences at people as if he was trying to trip them up.  When I told him I was teaching English, he said, “You can explain the past aorist.” 

His questions were even more exacting.  Our conversation turned to underpants.  I don’t remember why.  It was a long time ago.  There may have been an incident concerning trousers.  I may have said something like, “Just as well you had your underpants on,” or, “At least you were wearing underpants!”  Something reassuring that took the use of underpants for granted.

 “Do you wear underpants?” he retorted, with more heat than usual when you’re discussing underwear; a tone that might have worked for punching babies or eating mice.  And when he said it, he jerked his face towards me in a devastating way.

I didn’t answer his question.  I didn’t want to make things worse.  

Graeme, thank God, was not like me in everything.  He cut his nostril hair.  I plucked it – mine, that is – and I did so in private, ever since the bus ride when someone said, “Ugh, don’t pick your nose like that!”  Graeme trimmed his nostrils while I was sitting next to him.  Just the one time. One time was enough.  He waited till my head was turned away, I give him that, but I still saw it.  I can see it now, like a video that keeps playing.  He raised a pair of scissors, the kind you cut your nails with, snipped quickly, and then withdrew, concealing the guilty hand behind his thigh.  I could have missed it, but I didn’t.  One snip per nostril.  That’s all it took, apparently.  For some reason, he couldn’t wait till I had gone.  Did he really think I wouldn’t notice?  Perhaps he didn’t really care.  Screw you.  My nostrils need trimming.

Unlike me, Graeme didn’t worry about dirt.  He’d asked me around for a meal.  In the vegetable stew, there were several chunks of earth, each about as big as a one drachma coin.  Small as coins go, but not for the dirt which you're expected to eat.  It was good Greek soil, carved out of a desiccated field.  He must have seen it, stuck to pieces of potato, or bulging on the stalk of a whole champignon; lumps of earth so hard they hadn’t fallen apart in the cooking pot, unless he tossed them in at the very end, like a pinch of herbs, to perfect the recipe. 

I wash vegetables before I cook them.  I fuss around the cold tap.  I even hold mushrooms under running water, when people I respect just wipe them with a cloth, like dusting ornaments.  I tell myself that a plant which resembles an open umbrella has evolved well enough to deal with water.

But I didn’t mention the dirt to Graeme.  It was like the nostril hair.  He didn’t really care.  I just ate it.  The soil, I mean.  I couldn’t leave it on the plate.  He would have seen it.  He would have fired another question at me with his hostile face.

“Do you wash potatoes?”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Bad girls

“You’ve got some strange sexual habits.”

The deputy-head spoke placidly, but I was still scared.  I must have had a guilty conscience.  When he saw my face, he apologised.  He’d just been in the girls’ toilets, I don’t remember why, and seen the graffiti.  He didn’t repeat what it was, probably something like Spaid sucks cocks.  Revenge, at least, is sweet.

That was in Australia.  Most of my blunders have a London twang.  I was monitoring some Year 10s.  I complimented a pair of girls on their behaviour.

“I like good girls.”  Pause.  “I like bad girls, too.”

It magnetised their foreheads for a second.

To take things out of the classroom – there are bad girls in the workplace as well – I’ll tell you a story about a barber I used to have.  A girl washed the customers’ hair first.  The barber never did that.

She was about sixteen.  Her arms were bare to just below the shoulder.  You don’t want sleeves getting wet.  Her T-shirt was tight, very tight, an extension, really, of her normal skin.  You don’t want clothes dangling in a client’s face. 

The girl wet my hair.  She was close enough for me to feel her body heat.  When the time came to add shampoo, she pressed herself against my shoulder.     

The barber never did that.  He was a buoyant sort.  His snipping hand had a life of its own.  No need to rest an arm on someone's head if he was tired. 

The girl was not so lucky.  To work the soap in fully, she had to prop her forearms on my brow.  Pretty arms, neatly curved.  What they felt like on my face, it’s difficult to say.  I remember wondering if my eyebrow tickled her, the skin near her pulse.   

One day, she just got tired of it.  Instead of massaging, her fingers started pulling at my hair, sharp, little tugs that hair washers don’t usually do.  It felt like revenge.  I had never spoken to her.  I didn’t know what to say. 

Girls are good at revenge.  In school, I gave a bad girl lines to write.  Two sides.  Something like I am very sorry for behaving badly. When the sheet came back, by the bottom of page two, the message had become I am not sorry, I am not sorry, I am not sorry.  It was hard not to smile.

I was sitting at the teacher’s desk.  I looked around.  A girl had drawn an arrow on the board behind me, like a diagram in Science.  The tip was pointing down at me.  The other end was labelled smelly.

The best insult, though, comes from the twelve-year-old who called out in class: “You’ve got a dick this big!”  She held up a thumb and forefinger as if she was going to pinch the air.  There wasn’t much space between them.

Insults and revenge are fine, but they don’t explain why some girls stay behind at the end of a lesson when you haven't asked them to. 

“Will you have sex with me, sir?”

A Year 9.  She had waited till everyone was gone.

“We could have so much fun.”

She emphasised the word so.  When I didn’t answer, or look at her, she went on:

“I’m undoing my belt.”  Pause.  “I’m taking my jeans off now.”

I still didn’t look.  I went to lunch instead.  I didn’t think she meant it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

This won’t do

I only remember two lectures at Adelaide University.  One was on the Yippee Bird.  It was delivered by a drunken student, and ended prematurely when the lecturer walked in.

The other was Vida’s lecture on profanity.  Everyone remembers that.  It was improper, like the Yippee Bird, but it was the only time the lecture hall was full.  The words, like the students, were all there.  Fuck, Shit and Cunt, spread out wisely.  She didn’t let the bad boys sit together.  She had us tittering to the end.  She could use words to effect. 

I was still gardening.  She recommended me to someone else, and told me what she’d said.  I was thorough, but slow.  She’d been judging my performance as a gardener, too.  I might have known.

At the new property, I had to cut a hedge.  I told her I’d never cut a hedge before. 

“Now you’re going to learn.” 

I chuckled.  It was, after all, someone else’s hedge.

The plainest of speakers, she had little time for irony.  Why say something which you don’t mean, or which is open to interpretation?  One morning, we were standing in her front garden.  Across the road, an old lady, or so she seemed to me, came out of a house.  Vida said a man lived there, and the woman often stayed the night.  We reflected for a moment, then I said: 

“No one in their right mind would think she stayed the night.”

Vida looked at me.  “Do you mean her appearance?”

I nodded.

“Graham, that’s very uncharitable of you!”

She was pleased, though.  I remember these things.  It was important for me to please her.
She said she sometimes wondered how tolerant she was, although I think she knew.  I replied, “You’ve always struck me as a model of toleration.”

But it wasn’t all talking and shovelling.  Vida wrote as well, academic things, and lots of letters.  She got one from a former student.  

“It’s from Tim,” she said.  “He finally married his girlfriend.  I don’t know why he still writes to me.  He always struck me as being rather dim.”

“He must be.”

“There’s no need to be offensive!”

When I wasn’t in Adelaide, I also wrote to her.  One letter she even wrote for me, my application to Oxford.  It was all her idea.  She told me to draft my own letter, then show it to her.  She knew it wouldn’t work, and as soon as she started reading it, she said, “This won’t do.”

She picked her pen up, already thinking, and wrote a letter of her own.  She did it there and then, without speaking, just wrote till it was done, in a single, flowing movement.  She only did things when she knew what she was doing.  It didn’t do my application any harm.    

All her letters had the same pure style.  When something's right, there's no need to change.  I wrote to her last year.  I hadn’t sent a letter for a very long time.  I didn’t want to be a dim Tim, or maybe I was lazy.  She replied by email. 

I assume that you thought I was too old and doddery to cope with such things.” 

Right again.  Years ago, when a friend of hers died, Vida sorted out her stuff.  It was heartbreaking, she said, going through the old letters.   Why do people write things down? 

At the end of the email, she thanked me for remembering her.  No irony, of course.  It made me a little sad, even then.  As if I could forget.

Vida died, she passed away, she went to meet her maker.  I can’t say it more plainly.  She’s gone, and it won’t do.