The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A cup of coffee and a sweet

I couldn’t see Mt Olympus from my window, not even when the air was clean enough.  A medieval wall was in the way.  I could see the tiny house where Olga lived, just a roof and sides made of tin and wood, stuck like a barnacle to the giant masonry.  The old lady lived by herself.  Olga was her real name.  She must have died a long time ago. 

Her house always looked the same.  It was perfect, the sort of thing that tourists photograph.  There were a lot of Germans strolling around up there.  

Our hovels eyed each other from across a road.  There was only space for one car to go by at a time.  People mainly walked.  Olga looked down on me, literally, and when I went to see her, she’d repeat what I’d been doing in my room a few hours earlier.  Like a real-time biographer.  Ela!  She just called across when she had something to say. 

Inside her house was perfect too.  You can do that to the place you live in.  I enjoyed those visits.  It felt like she was looking after me.  She had her little ceremonies.  When she began the one which ended in a cup of Greek coffee and a piece of syrupy fruit from a jar, I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be.  It was always the same.  The fruit would change, that was all. 

We even said the same sort of thing each time.  I didn’t know much Greek, and Olga only mentioned certain types of news.  The details would be different, like the fruit she gave me.    

She told me when a girl put her fingers on my head.  A Greek girl who said she was seventeen. I don’t remember why she touched me.  There must have been a very ordinary reason – who makes love in front of an open window? – but it looked romantic from across the road where Olga was sitting.  The old lady told me what had happened.  It wasn’t much.  She even showed me, as far as her hip allowed, as if she was a girl again, although she didn’t touch me.  She placed her fingers in the air, where my temples would have been.  I remember that as clearly as the girl.

I visited Salonica two years ago.  I went up to see if the hovels were still there, but just stood at the end of the road.  

Monday, 21 April 2014

Higher than Olympus

Bryan lived on the sixth floor, the last floor but one, in his wife’s apartment in Salonica.  The buildings around the waterfront were all fairly new.  The apartment was a big, open space, with a window from ceiling to floor right along the side which faced the harbour.  At least that’s how I remember it.  I’m using the past tense because I don’t go back anymore, but I don’t think much has changed, except that Bryan and his wife are no longer there.  In the afternoon, looking through their huge window, as you felt you had to do, it was like being in front of a movie screen, one that was fixed on a single frame of light.

On a day of great optical clarity, as Bryan used to say, you could see the mountains in the distance.  The peaks were very small.  It felt as if you were looking down on them.  You were higher than Olympus.

Bryan told me how a group of Englishmen had climbed the main peak.  You can walk up without much trouble.  For safety – someone’s idea of safety, anyway – they were all attached to one rope.  Entertaining in itself, but they had also been drinking.  After a happy ascent, they finally stood on top, a space not much bigger than a dining room table.  Then someone lost his balance, pulled the others with him, and they all fell to their death.

Bryan’s wife was Greek.  She looked very old to me.  When she was a girl, the Germans came to her school and took away the Jewish children, including a friend.  Each time Bryan had me round, she invited her own Greek acquaintances.  I don’t think there was anything belligerent about it.  They didn’t do battle in this way, or in any way that I could see.  When Bryan told her I was coming, I suppose she just imagined what it would be like when I was there.  She didn’t want to feel left out.  Her English was perfect.  I don’t think she disliked me.  She simply had no interest in me. 

The acquaintances, two or three old ladies, probably didn’t knit the whole evening, but it seems like that now.  On one occasion, Bryan quietly pointed out to me how they all talked at the same time.  He was right.  They never listened to each other, not for a moment.  It was riveting.

Once, just once, we all had tea together.  Bryan passed on the news that the BBC was going to broadcast a story I had written.  He was quite proud of me, I think.  One of the old ladies asked how much I was getting paid.  When I told her, she laughed.  Another one explained: “He’s only a beginner.”

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A girl called Kamaica

I know a girl called Kennifer – that’s her real name – but I’m not going to talk about her.  I’m going to talk about Kamaica instead.  That’s an alias.  Lots of things about Kamaica aren’t real.

She offers a range of ailments to avoid doing work: stomach ache, arm hurt and – my own favourite – foot pain, depending on the assignment she is given.  Everything looks OK, then suddenly she’s there in front of me, nursing a body part with sorrowful eyes. 

If she can’t escape a task, she will simplify it.  When the children had to write a diary entry for a character in their reading book, she just copied the first page and converted every she to I.  It took me a couple of sentences to cotton on.

A Caribbean girl can brighten up the dullest lesson.  With a friend, Kamaica did some artwork for me.  They both drew people, but Kamaica added nipples, which she pointed out in case I missed them.

“It’s a boy,” I said.

“No, it’s a girl,”  replied Kamaica, and smiled cheerfully. 

“Can I keep it?”

“You’ll just throw it away.”

“If you sign it, I’ll keep it forever.”

The girls signed their drawings and gave them to me.  One girl put her real name.  The other put Kamaica.  I know a girl called Sunny.  A Precious, a Lovely and a Pretty.  A Jihad.  Why not Kamaica? 

It was time for shadows. They’re a problem, aren't they?  Poetry is littered with them.  But this was Science.  We had to understand how shadows change position as the sun moves across the sky.  A child’s notebook was brought in from another class where the lesson had been done already.  The diagram was very beautiful.  It was a model for us all.  There were three suns arched across the sky, shining down upon a solitary human figure, a man beset with dark shapes on the ground where he stood.  The shadows for sunrise and sunset were fine, but midday, when the sun was above him, had obviously deceived the little Newton because the shadow was the same length as the others.  It just pointed vertically down.  I say obviously, but the Year 5 teachers had missed it.  They may be good with poems.

My group started work, with some variation on the sun.  Three plain discs with pencil lines sticking out around the edge; three smiley faces with curling golden hair.  You know the sort of thing.  Then there was Kamaica, who was for once in perfect health.  With her own strange poetry, she reversed the metaphor and drew three sunflowers in the place of suns, with petals and a stalk and leaves. 

I’ve been using but a lot.  I got it from Kamaica.  It’s her pet word.  When she said it in class the other day, I replied, unconsciously: “The girl with the but.”  Kamaica always wins.

The Year 6s are leaving school.  They’re going up to secondary.  Kamaica’s going too.  I have the drawing. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Punctuated by a schoolboy

I thought I should run a check on my internet profile, so I did a Google search.  A split second later, there I was. 

‘My cat tends to jump on and torture an older male cat we own. She’s spaid and about 8 months and the male cat hates her?’ 

The male would be a sci-fi fan.  I like the question mark.

Life is a litter of mysteries.  Do things just because you can.  You might want to cause pain.  You might do it without meaning to.  I work as an English tutor.  One of my teenage pupils told me that he’d neutered a male cat while on work experience at a vet’s. Being a boy, he was used to making errors.  Spelling, punctuation, that sort of thing.  But the neutering was no mistake.  He was told to do it by the vet.   For once, he put a glinting full stop in the right place.  His mistake, the vet said, was to cut too deep. 

Candidates on work experience make all sorts of blunders.  Like ordinary employees, they are unable to do lots of things which they have been told to do.  They arrive late for work, they put too much sugar in the boss’s tea, they over-darken the photocopies.  They cut too far into the kitten’s flesh.  On work experience, of course, you can get it wrong and no one really minds because no one is paying you.  The vet even said it wasn’t a bad job.  I wonder, do schools send pupils out to hospitals and airlines? 

Most children wouldn’t dare disobey instructions from their employer during work experience.  They want a good report.  But it wouldn’t occur to them in the first place that they might be asked to do something which was wrong.  My pupil hadn't realised.  He'd actually felt quite pleased with himself.

          When he told me about his improvised snip, I ad-libbed a short piece of my own, something about empathy – with the owner of the cat, not the cat itself.  I asked the young man if he’d want his pet cat neutered by a schoolboy.  He said no straightaway.