The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The telephone dance

There’s a little girl I haven’t mentioned.  We had lessons at the kitchen table.  It was a heavy one, with a solid glass top, the sort you might find in a dining room.

When we sat down, her uncle wiped the surface with a damp cloth.  Despite the curry stains, it was quite handy sitting in the kitchen.  The little girl – let’s call her Priya – had access to the food cupboards, and the fridge for drinks.  She was only seven.  The glasses were on a high shelf.  To get them, she had to climb on a cupboard, then reach up even further.  She was very small.  To me, waiting at the table, it looked like rock climbing. 

I remember one lesson.  She had made her favourite drink – she mixed things together – and kept it in the fridge.  She had drunk almost all of it.  There was only enough for one glass, but she wanted me to try it, so she filled a glass, and gave it to me.  She kept saying how yummy it was.

“Are you sure you want me to have it?” I asked.  She nodded, but I left the glass on the table.  I thought she might change her mind.  I wasn’t tempting her. 

“Sure?” I repeated, a moment later.  It was too much.  Without a word, she reached across, and pulled the glass back in front of her. 

At one time or other, I tutored the whole family, the child portion. They came in two lots: Priya and her parents (she was an only child), and her aunt and uncle, plus two teenage cousins.  In the kitchen, there were three large plants, one for each child, explained Priya, put into pots when they were born.  The sort you can grow inside.  They had done quite well in the sunny kitchen, turning into trees and bushes, but I couldn’t help thinking: What happens when they die?  I didn’t mention it to Priya.

“Did R– behave himself?” she asked, after one of his lessons.  R– was thirteen.  She actually said: “Did W– behave himself?”  She hadn’t mastered the letter r.  It was another cute thing I’d discovered.

S–, the other child, had turned sixteen.  Priya came in once during the older girl’s lesson.  She brought a pile of books, and sat opposite, in silence, with a pencil in her hand, looking studious.

“You’re peeking,” I observed.  It was true.  She was keeping an eye on us.

At the start of her own lessons, Priya was usually asleep.  When I arrived, I’d find her on the sofa, out cold, at five-thirty in the afternoon.  She cried when she had to wake up.  She was, I think, the perfect bawling, little sister, or cousin in this case.  If you lived with her, it might be annoying.  

Once, before the lesson, she slipped and fell on the stairs.  They were steep and narrow.

“Did you cry?” I asked.


“I bet you did.”

She confessed.  When she was fully awake, the fun began.  There was a telephone on the cupboard by the sink.  It rang at least once every lesson.  It had a special melody, and was very loud.  She did a dance, “My telephone dance,” she called it.  She used to practise during the lesson, when the phone wasn’t ringing, near one of the big plants.  Sometimes, she climbed on the table, and danced there, in front of me.  There was more room.  It must have felt like a stage.

One day, R– came in late from school, looking for food.  Priya was working.

“She did her telephone dance,” I said.

R– didn’t know what it was.  

“I only come once a week,” I pointed out.  “You live with her, and you haven’t seen her telephone dance!” 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Money well spent

Kirin told me to say the letter x five times.  I did as he wanted, with modest pauses in between.  He understood, I could tell, but he tried again.  He’s only seven.

“Say it quickly!”

“I used to be a boy, you know.”

He started singing in a baby voice.

“Kirin!” Mummy called.  She was in the kitchen, monitoring as usual.  We went back to work.  After a while, Kirin said, softly: “Are you gay?”

It was, I should point out, ‘apropos of nothing,’ as people used to say when I was seven.  In his homework, and my behaviour, there was no sexual content.  It doesn’t feature greatly in Year 3, not in the syllabus, anyway.  But I had to say something.
“Have you been talking to the bad boys at school?”  
“They’re just boys.”
“You don’t talk to girls, do you?  Not at your age.”
At least he’d spoken softly. 
For comprehension, there was an extract from a play.  A group of children were watching a magic show.  A rude boy was trying to spoil things, making comments which he thought were clever.  The magician would surely take revenge.  That was the last question: What’s going to happen next?  Tricky for Year 3.  We began our answers.  The first question was about the setting.  The first question is meant to be easy, but I wasn’t sure.  I have trouble with easy questions.  I should stick to Maths.  I said to Kirin, “You’re good with questions.  What’s the setting for the play?”
He wasn’t sure either.  I had a few ideas. 
“In the text, a floor is mentioned, so they must be inside a building, which is all we can tell for certain.  There are balloons in the illustration, and the word party appears in question two, so it’s probably a children’s party.  Still, the balloons could be part of the magic show, and the whole point of doing comprehension is to find answers in a written text.  You shouldn’t have to look at the next question, or the illustration.  In other words, it’s a stupid question.  One more thing.  If the characters are gay, it doesn’t matter.” 

I was speaking softly too.  To finish off, I raised my voice. 

“Put all that in your own words,”

He began to write his answer.  With his free hand, he covered his work, the way a child does in a test, so no one can see what he’s writing.  It didn’t take him long.  When I looked, he had written: “It’s a stupid question.”

At the end of the lesson, Mummy came in, as usual, and announced: “He didn’t behave well today.”  Then she spoke to Kirin: “I heard everything.  Everything.”

He grinned.

“He’s a lot better than he used to be,” I said.  I was protecting myself.  But she agreed.

“The school said he’s improving.  He’s in the top group for English now, the same as Maths.”

I remembered something which he’d told me at the start of the lesson, about his recent homework.   

“My teacher asked, ‘Where do all these crazy, fabulous sentences come from?’"  

“What did you say?”

“I said I’ve got a tutor.”

“What did she say?”

“She was pleased.”

told Mummy – she hadn’t heard that – adding, “His teacher’s happy because she’ll take the credit for his improvement.  The head teacher will love her.  Everybody’s happy.”

“Everybody’s happy,” echoed Mummy.  "It’s money well spent,”

I realised she was thanking me; that this was the closest I would get to hearing the two words thank you.  It took a moment for all this realising.  Again, I had to say something.  I just said, “Thank you.”

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A naughtymatic

“I have to write a letter,” Kirin said.

“Did your teacher tell you how to write a letter?”


I turned to Mummy.

“How can he do it, then?”

“That’s how they teach these days.  They don’t go through everything.”

“Good teachers do.”

The letter was addressed to an astronaut, a real one, a woman.  It was breaking down barriers in gender, if not in learning.  There were other barriers. 

“You could ask her if it’s nice in space.”

Nice is a banned word,” said Kirin.

The literacy lady had banned words like nice, big and little.  And happy – that’s a good one.  (Good was banned too.)  She meant well.  She wanted to improve the children’s writing.  She’d been banning words for the whole of Year 3.  Now, she was banning them in space.

“OK,” I said.  “Ask about the space jellyfish.”

We talked about floating in space; if a jellyfish would move the same way in space as it did in water; and, if you didn’t make it back to your spacecraft, how you might feel if you had to float forever. 

“I can see you in a space suit,” I said, “your little face at the window, but I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

When Kirin falls silent, and he’s not writing, he’s either sad or asleep.  I can’t always tell.  The letter was finished.  He put his pencil down.

“That’s a nice, big paragraph,” I said.

Time for comprehension.  A beggar knocked on an old woman’s door.  Did she have some water? For nail soup.  He had the nail already.  He showed it to her.  He only needed water.  She couldn’t refuse such a small request, so she boiled some water, and he added the nail.  He let it cook for a while, then tried a spoonful.  It could do with some seasoning, he said.  Well, she could spare a little seasoning.  She added salt.  It went on cooking.  He tasted it again.  Some vegetables wouldn’t hurt.  A little meat. Tasting each time.  In the end, a delicious bowl of soup was ready.  The beggar shared it with her.

Kirin had to write about the old lady.  We agreed that she was stupid.  We also agreed that he couldn’t write that in his book.  His teacher mightn’t like it.  Dumb, foolish, and idiotic didn’t sound so good either.  In the end, he just wrote that she wasn’t very clever, and played with a couple of toy cars.  It wasn’t very clever either.  Mummy was still banning them.  We discussed whether he could trick her the way the beggar had tricked the old lady.  Kirin thought not.  We also discussed where he could hide the cars if she came in unexpectedly.  Then he talked about them.

“This one’s an automatic.”

“A naughtymatic,” I said.

He chuckled. 

“You’re not the only bad boy in the world.”

“Me not bad.”

“Me not stupid.”

I told him about a trick I’d played at school, on a girl called Precious.  It was Year 6, ICT.  I was standing in front of the class.  I asked her what the opposite of shut down was.  She thought for a moment. 

“Log on?”  But she knew it wasn’t right.  I pushed my hand down in the air: “If this is shut down,” and lifted it again: “this is –”

“Shut up!” Precious cried.

“Tut, tut, tut.”  I shook my head.  “Precious told me to shut up.  I’m telling Miss.”

Kirin chuckled.  Then he asked, quite seriously, “Did you tell Miss?”

I shook my head again.  You can’t always tell on a child.  Kirin was still thinking.

“What did Precious do?”

She groaned, ‘Oh, sir!’ in a very deep voice.  But she knew I was joking.”

After the lesson, the one with Precious, we all walked off to lunch.  At the end of the corridor, one of the boys went: “What’s the opposite of shut down?” to the first adult he saw.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Do it quickly, and slowly

Kirin wanted to play in the lesson.

“You know I like you.  I wish I could play, but I can’t.  Mummy’s paying for the lesson.”

In a private lesson, if a child misbehaves, there’s not much you can do.  You’re not at school.  You can tell mummy, but, whatever she says, she’s not the Head teacher.  And you can’t keep a naughty one in, not sensibly – the lesson takes place in their home.  With Kirin, I tried: “If you’re not careful, I’ll stay another hour.” 

“I want you to stay for four or five hours!”

There was something grown-up about that – the imprecision, maybe.  He wasn’t exaggerating.

For literacy, Kirin doesn’t have Miss So-and-so.  He has a specialist in the subject.  It’s nice to be taught by an expert, however old you are.  Kirin got a comma wrong doing his homework.  When I told him, he replied, “Our literacy teacher said that commas mean and.” 

I forget what he wrote, but the rule would have worked in his sentence.  A fable, The Fox and the Sparrow, was for comprehension.  Mrs –, the teaching assistant, had reduced four pages to one, to save paper, I suppose.  It was admirable, but the print was too small.  I asked him to read it aloud. 

“Do it quickly, and slowly,” I said.  He read for a moment, then looked up.

“How can I read it quickly and slowly?”

“Just checking you were listening.”

He continued reading.  My mind wandered off immediately.

“I wasn’t listening,” I said.  “Please repeat that for me.” 

My confession interested Kirin.  He pointed out that it was he who normally didn’t listen.  I agreed.  I now owed him.  Whenever I make a mistake, and it happens quite often, I give him a ‘life.’  Given the size of this mistake, I awarded two and a half.  He grinned.  He needed all the lives he could get.

In the fable, in this version, anyway, a fox sees some grapes on a wall, and tries to reach them.  The more he tries, the more aggressive he becomes.   In the end, he gives up, and says he never wanted them.  A bird lands lightly on the wall, next to the grapes, and eats them.  In the comprehension, a question asked: Why lightly?  It was an excellent question.  I didn’t know the answer.  For a start, I’ve never seen a bird land heavily.  But this was Year 3.  There had to be a reason.  Was she trying not to knock them off the wall, and lose them to her old enemy, or was she just trying to make him feel worse: Look how easy it is, you clumsy fool!  Or both, or something else?  After I’d gone through it with Kirin, I still wasn’t sure, so I told him to write it all down, and say he wasn’t sure.  I smiled when I thought about his teacher.    

For Maths, the expanded column method.  Again.  It was easy.  We were getting bored, so I thought I’d improvise.

“If Farmer Brown” – I was reading from his book – “had 137 sheep in the field and 214 in the yard and 306 in the bathroom, what was the total?”

It’s a risk being silly.  Kirin can either wake up, or stop trying completely.  Now, he kept making mistakes, and rubbing them out.  The slightest error, and he’d rub out the whole line before I could stop him.  We weren’t going to finish.  He made one mistake too many.  I took his page, and corrected it myself.  I didn’t think I’d snatched it, but, straightaway, there were tears in his eyes. 

“You snatched my work.”

“I didn’t” – the pool of tears was growing – “mean to.”

It was too late.

“I still had a life!” Kirin said, and a big drop rolled down his cheek.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Gandhi’s house

Manur didn’t mention his thesis anymore.  One day, he went back to India.  In Ahmedabad, with his mother – I was still dropping in – he was more relaxed.  But I could still annoy him. 

We were sitting on the sofa.  He knew I’d written a story.  I told him the BBC had accepted it.  He went stiff for three seconds – it was a long time – then jerked his head towards me as if I’d insulted him.  He told me that he wanted to write (remember his eye for detail?), but that being bilingual made it difficult.  As for my story, he missed the broadcast.  He said he was still in bed. 

There are more important things than words.  I needed clean water.  The stuff from the tap was poisoning me.  It was raining, so I took a bowl from the old girl’s kitchen, and put it on the roof, hoping it would fill overnight.  I think I asked first, or just did it while they watched.

It was an ordinary bowl, stainless steel, and shiny.  In India, things like this are beautiful.  You can buy them here in London, imported, but they lose something on the journey – not their shine; their context. 

We sat there, Manur and I, listening to the rain, thinking about his mother’s little bowl.  He was anxious.  He said it was acid rain.  Although he didn’t tell me, and she didn’t show it – not to me, at least – his mother was annoyed.  It wasn’t my bowl.  It was hers.  Judging from his face, the acid was too.  

Next morning, I retrieved the bowl.  It was full to the lip.  I could have used a much larger one.  He told me not to do it again.

When his mother was killed, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. I said it was the Gandhi name that got him elected.  I thought it was obvious.  I wasn’t trying to insult anyone, but Manur felt insulted. It didn’t reflect well on the country, or he thought it didn’t.     

My trip to the Mahatma’s ashram didn’t help.  Manur was concerned about my clothes.  I should wear something better.  I said I’d be a target for thieves.  He laughed incredulously.  The ashram is just out of town.  On the bus back, a bony young man picked my pocket.  I know he was bony because he jumped on top of me, from behind, as I was getting on the bus, and wrapped his arms around me.  Before we’d travelled very far, he dropped off, like a full leech, onto the dusty road, and disappeared.  A passenger said, “You’d better check your wallet.”

I was a target anyway.  Manur was incredulous again.  But he didn't laugh.  It didn’t reflect well on the country. 

He had a job producing TV commercials.  He was very excited, the way he’d been about his thesis.   His current project was a petrol advertisement for a local company.   He took me through it.  His catch phrase pleased him the most: Put a tiger in your tank.  He fell silent, smiled, and waited for my approval.  It was, of course, the Esso slogan from the 1960s.  I don’t remember saying anything.  I was probably speechless.  Another of my annoying silences.  Had no one noticed that he’d stolen the line?  Or, if they had, did no one care?

Still excited, still smiling.  Still observing, too. 

“The actresses are fascinating.  They never stop acting.” 

He paused, and wondered for a moment at the actresses who never stopped acting, actresses in general, and the ones he was working with now.  He remembered all their little tricks and charms, while, we both knew, I remembered nothing.  I wasn’t a TV producer, even one of low ability.  As he wondered, he gently shook his head.  I wondered something else: how many actresses were needed for a tank of petrol.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Silence and Pause in Pinter

Kay took us for a spin in her car.  I don’t remember where.  We talked about Australia for a while.  I was born there.  Kay had worked there, and knew my family.  Manur was in a chatty mood.  He even had a joke.

“Someone met an Australian, and asked him when he’d come.  The Australian answered, ‘I came today.’  The other chap said, ‘I asked you when you came, not why.’”

He gave his little smile.  He knew his own qualities inside out, his sense of humour, for example, even though, for the most part, he chose to conceal them.  Was I saying funny things?  Was I smiling now?  He thought I had no sense of humour.  At the same time, he’d impressed Kay.  Something had happened to her, anyway.  When he shared his little joke, which was decades old, she looked surprised, though she often did, gave one of her forced chuckles, and went on looking at the road.

“What’s your thesis about?” she asked, after the dip in conversation.  Manur’s thesis was on silence and pause in Pinter.  He had talked to me about it at the start, enthusiastically, as if the topic was original, and no one else had ever thought of it. 

“It’s fascinating,” he had told me, “how much meaning you can find in a single pause.”

I was almost interested.  It was the apparent keenness.  Kay, for her part, knew he was studying something.  She glanced across when she spoke to him, with polite expectation, briefly, I’m glad to say, since she was driving.  She must have thought her question was a good one.  It’s the sort of thing you say when you don’t know someone very well.  I can’t go wrong with this.  As far as a thesis goes, or any book for that matter, the author is rarely slow to talk about it.  Manur gave the title readily enough.  But no more.

She persisted.  She wanted to know, very politely, what he’d done so far.  He didn’t answer.  He was normally quite happy to talk about himself, with me, at least.  He was more reticent with others, but he’d been talking freely.  She looked confused.  What was the matter?  Was he being his old, shy self, or was he reluctant to tell her for some other reason?  Let’s be honest.  It was just another thesis which didn’t really matter, which Kay, or anyone else, didn’t really care about.  She wasn’t going to steal his ideas.  She just needed something to fill a silence. 

She asked him twice.  Still no answer.  If his thesis had once infected him, it wasn’t with  a lasting enthusiasm.  She couldn’t know the reason for his silence, and he wasn’t about to tell her.  He had done nothing.  I’m not sure how I knew.  He never told me.  It was simply obvious.  Not to Kay, however.  She was irritated when he kept quiet, and he was irritated when she kept asking.

Eyes on the road.

Even I, who lacked his funny bone, could appreciate the humour.  I smiled my little smile, at Manur’s discomfort, at Kay’s perplexity.  His thesis was meant to examine silence.  It was doing that already.  In its current form, it was the written equivalent of silence.  It was a masterpiece of absent sound.  But silence is something.  His thesis wasn’t anything at all, beyond a title.  Silence and Pause in Pinter.  No one made him do it, so he didn’t.  In Kay’s cramped car, one Sunday afternoon a long time ago, silence was something that we all examined in a highly original way.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Greek for masturbators

I went to see Manur in his room at the university.  Someone else was there, a Greek student who spoke English.  Eco’s The Name of the Rose had been published recently.  They both had opinions about it.  I didn’t say anything, except that I hadn’t read it.  Manur hadn't read it either.  The Greek boy was reading it in Greek. 

“Why not?” he turned to me, although I hadn’t queried him.  “It was written in Italian.”

We moved on to girls.  I say we.  Indian girls and Greek girls were summoned up, examined and debated in a general way, without insult, but not without sarcasm, by the other two.  It was a boys’ party game, but all the boys weren’t playing.  The Greek turned to me again. 

“What about Australian girls?”  Again, I said nothing.  To them, concerning girls, I must have known nothing.  To me, their ready chatter was just like purring.  I thought: These two masturbate.

Afterwards, we went for one of our strolls, Manur and I.  There were two Greek girls on a patch of empty ground.  You couldn’t miss them.  They had heavy mascara, black leather jackets and tight black jeans.  Their clothes looked bonded to them.  How did they get them off?  I’m just wondering now.  I didn’t think that at the time.

The girls had seen us too.  They were standing close together.  They turned their faces in a single movement, like a predator with two heads, and peered at us ironically.  When they saw we didn’t want them, one of them laughed, and the other said:Μαλάκας” (malákas).

The irony would work in every case: if we wanted them, and needed showing who was boss; or if, as happened here, we didn’t want them, and needed dumping before we even met; or for some other reason that only girls know.  Manur was delighted with the female interest – the fact that they’d laughed and said something.  The other fact, that they’d spoken about us, not to us, and laughed at us, not with us, didn’t seem to matter.  He laughed too, with wide eyes.  He’d never had a girlfriend – that was clear.  It was another thing he didn’t have to tell me.  His head followed them as they walked away.  All right, mine did too.  But we were thinking different things.  Perhaps the irony had fooled him.

A fine observer like Manur would also be observing me.  It was inevitable.  With his observation came a growing understanding of my faults.

“You don’t say anything,” he said.  He was tired of me, the little Australian.

The last time he came to see me, about a week later, Graeme was there too.  I’d invited them to dinner.  Another grinding, all-male affair.  I’d cooked a curry.  It was the wrong choice.  Manur disliked spicy food, and was honest enough to say so.  Graeme disliked it too, but he went further.  He questioned why it should exist.  Here was a vision of the future, a post-vindaloo world, one without me.

Manur asked Graeme what μαλάκας meant.  Graeme repeated the word like an expert, in language, I mean – he spoke Greek very well – then translated it with equal clarity: “Masturbator.”

When the meal was over, we stepped onto the road.  A couple of teenage girls were passing.  They lived at the end of the street.  They said hello to me, chanting my name the way Greek girls do, or used to do: “Γεια σου, Γραχαμ!”

Manur looked at them, then at me, and burst out laughing, incredulously.  The girls had walked on, but they must have heard.  And he’s dumping meI thought.  He looked at them again, before they turned the corner, and said, more softly, in his purring way, “Nice girls.”