The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Lule and the party pooper

I saw Lule in the street with a group of students.  All of them were boys.  They were outside her flat, standing on the pavement.  There was a kind of shape about them, this little, male crowd and Lule.  I thought they were going somewhere.  A boy said they were going up to Lule’s.  It was the student she had kissed.  He suggested I come too.  It was nice of him.

She hadn’t told me about the party.  When the boy did, she looked annoyed.  Stop taking liberties.  It’s one of the clearest memories I have, Lule’s face when he asked me along.  The school owned the flat.  I'd been before, but not while she was there.  She didn’t want me now.  It’s the only reason I went.  Along with the kissing business. 

We sat in the living room.  There were half a dozen boys, Romeo in one place and Lule in another, studiously apart – if there’d been a kiss.  Perhaps there hadn’t.  Liddie could have made it up. If she did, it was her finest lie. 

The boy was more at ease than anyone.  So confident.  It’s why you kiss a boy, or what comes from kissing.  Not just kissing Lule, but there was something else.  She didn’t speak to him, not once, even when she stopped looking cross.  If her eyes came close to his, they lightly passed by.  It wasn’t accidental.  But she didn’t speak to me, either.  Has she ever kissed me?    

We were drinking heavily.  Lule pointed out, with a proud chuckle, that Albanians were drinkers too.  Someone mentioned the police state.  She said Albanians were happy. 

“No one leaves.” 

“They’re too drunk to find the border.”  It’s the only thing I remember saying.  She was annoyed again.  The Greek boys shook with laughter.  The one she kissed laughed loudest.  I can see his quivering face.  Laughter makes a difference.  I started to enjoy the party.   

At the cram school, complaints were being made about Lule.  She wasn’t teaching anything.  The director asked me to talk to her.  He didn’t want to lose students.  He was also a coward.  He should have talked to her himself.  I was a coward too.  I should have said no. 

When I mentioned the complaints, she looked surprised.  I’m not sure what surprised her more, hearing that students had complained, or hearing it from me.  It wasn’t fair on Lule.  She was teaching things.  It must have been the girls who complained.  Anyway, she didn’t listen.  There were more complaints.  I mark pupils' work.  I’m not very good at correcting women. 

Lule was sacked at the end of the year.  She booked the coach to Athens.  A small group was there to see her off, no students, mainly teachers.  A Greek man was there as well.  I’d never seen him. He was older than her students.  He looked like an official lover.  I was still learning things about Lule. 

They spoke confidentially until the coach arrived.  Then he walked over to another teacher, one of the English girls, and started talking to her.  She didn’t seem to know him.  Lule was holding her suitcase, ready to board the coach.  He could have waited till she’d gone.  He could have kissed her, said goodbye at the last moment, done the things that boyfriends do.  But when the coach left, the girl would too.  He mightn’t get another chance.  Feigning warmth for Lule was no use now.  He could lose them both. 

 I didn’t want Lule pining over him.  She might have been the pining sort.  I said, so everyone could hear, “He’s not wasting much time.”   

 Of all the things I said to Lule, or said and did when I was next to her, this was the cruellest.

“I don’t blame him,” she muttered.  

Friday, 20 February 2015

Lule blossoms

I invited Lule up to my house on the hill.  I must have been desperate.  That doesn’t sound nice, I know.  I’m still being rude just thinking about Lule.  The Greek sun came in with her and lit her face, showing her plainness and her age.  It showed mine, too, I suppose

With most adults, I don’t know what to say.  It was even harder with Lule.  Happily, my shutters opened on the street.  I didn’t feel alone.  Lule mentioned, with a little smile, how close the traffic was, and the people walking by.  I said I liked it; I could reach out and touch passing motorists.  When I got to the word touch, I stretched my arm out lazily toward the open window.  The smile went away. 

In the Old Town, the roads don’t go far.  There aren’t many cars.  Children run about, playing in the street.  They call their adult neighbours by the first name, quite naturally, like friends.    

“Do you really like living here?” Lule smiled.          

“It’s nice,” I replied.  “In Australia, there’d be a man in a grey raincoat standing at the end of the road.”

Her smile went again.  A child appeared at the window, a girl called Maria.  I was very fond of her.  She was about twelve, and stopped by now and then.  She said hello sweetly, Γεια σου, Γραχαμ.  Greeks leave the a short, and do h in their throat, cutting my name in half.  Lule raised her hand and dabbed at the hair on the back of her head, although it didn’t need attention.  I looked at my two visitors, one on the left, in the window frame, the other in front of me.  What was I doing sitting there with Lule?  She didn’t dab her hair for me.  

Then I turned my back on the little girl.  I hadn’t done that before.  It must have hurt her.  She’s forgotten now.  I hope she has.  I only spoke Greek up there, with the neighbours, my own brand of Greek, and I thought Lule might laugh, although she couldn’t speak a word.  Something rude was always going to happen.  I was sitting next to Lule.  You never know what you’ll remember.  I should have turned my back on her. 

Lule kissed one of her students.  I remember that.  Liddie told me.  I don’t know where it happened – in town, I expect; or when – after class, presumably.  Lule must have told her.  The lucky boy was about nineteen, doing Proficiency in English, and acquiring it in other things as well. He was short and solid, with thick-rimmed glasses, black, curly hair, and eyebrows like wire brushes. Liddie didn’t say all that.  She only mentioned the kiss, and she did tell lots of lies, but I believed her this time.  Lule had feelings too, and the pupils liked her, most of them.  She didn’t set much writing. She didn’t want to mark it, and she wasn’t so good at grammar.  In Lule’s class, there was lots of conversation.   She was good at oral work.

I’d taught the boy myself.  Different things from Lule.  Turn your back next time.  He was clever.  He laughed at my jokes, but he was difficult to look at.  Difficult for me.  There was something about his face.  Now that Lule’s lips had been there, I looked a bit closer.  I kept seeing the kiss in my head.  I’m being careful now, looking for the right words.  A tricky subject, pupil amour.

I didn’t know this new, romantic Lule.  She initiated, probably, or he was drunk, which doesn’t sound nice either.  English is not the language of love.  They would have kissed in that.  

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Lule and the flowers of rudeness

Lule was a teacher at the cram school in Salonica.  Lule means flower in Albanian.  It’s not her real name.  I can’t use that.  You’ll see why in a moment.  I chose the name Lule because her family was Albanian, it’s similar to her actual name, and it’s not too hard to say.  There’s something else.  If you knew the real Lule, you’d think the name Flower was pleasantly ironic.  Not so pleasant if you’re Lule, and not the only irony. 

Albania was difficult, like its name in Albanian.  Shqipërisë.  The country was a police state, but Lule praised it.  A lot.  If there’d been a Shqipërisë tourist office, on Egnatía, say, or over on Tsimiskí, she would have been at home.  They could have used her talents.  She asked me once, ignoring the irony, if I’d thought about visiting Albania.  I said I’d just see model farms and plastic hotels.  That annoyed her.  Given her enthusiasm, it was a bit rude. 

Have you noticed how some people bring out the worst in you?  Lule was one of those people.  She put me in touch with my inner rudeness.  As for Albania, she could have dropped it.  She could have criticised it, although I didn’t expect her to.  She opted for enthusiasm.  The place was wonderful.  I had to go.  That annoyed me.  She had grown up in Australia, now lived in Greece, and had no intention of going to Albania. 

Looking back, every time I met Lule, I said something, or did something, rude.  I can give examples, but you won’t like me.  One night, I was sitting with her and Nellie in the café by the school.  I’d been to Turkey in the summer.  I wanted to impress them, so I described my attempt to cross the border illegally. 

The Evros River, between Greece and Turkey.  You had to cross by vehicle, but I tried to walk.  I was wondering what would happen, and I didn’t want to haggle for a taxi.  That’s all it was, a stroll across the water, but forbidden.  Before I got to the bridge, or even saw it, a Greek soldier stepped out from behind a bush.  He was in combat gear, holding a rifle that looked too big for him.  I hadn’t seen him.  There were twigs in his helmet, with clumps of leaves, like a movie, or a boys’ annual.  I think he had some dirt on his face.  He was about nineteen, and smiled sheepishly.  They didn’t get up to much.  There were a lot of bushes.  He could have scrambled the whole platoon. 

“Mother-fucker,’ I said.  Not to him.  I don’t normally swear like that, but I was sitting next to Lule.  Nellie was an old girl with a mother complex.  She and Lule flinched as if I’d poked them with a cattle prod. 

“They have a hard time, you know,” said Nellie.  There were stories in the news about conscripts who snapped, and shot their officers.  Too long behind a bush on the Evros River.  But youthful soldiers weren’t her only interest.  She was sympathetic to boys in general.  I once saw Nellie in the corridor at school, gazing up – she was very short – at the face of a male student, expectantly, like a pet spaniel, or a girl in love.  He didn’t notice her. 

“And their mothers wait at home.  Yes, they do!” she added, although I didn’t doubt it.  Lule gave a half-mocking sigh: “We women have a hard time.”

I liked the sigh, but it didn’t go far enough.  I looked at the two of them and said, “You’re not women!”

I was sitting next to Lule.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Story time

After lunch, Miss had to deal with Abid, the new boy who couldn’t speak English.  There was a muddle during registration.  In most schools, the register is taken twice a day.  I don’t know what happened in the morning.  I arrived late and missed it, but after lunch, things are always more difficult.  You can’t blame Miss.

When she called out Abid’s name, she didn’t understand what he said, and made a comment.  The fact that he had spoken, anything at all, or simply made a noise, proving he was there, not lost on the road, or kidnapped, or lying somewhere, mute with pain, was not enough for Miss, although it’s why most teachers call the roll.  She wasn’t like most teachers.  I forget what she said; nothing offensive, but she regretted it straightaway. 

She praised Abid now, his native language, his attempts at English.  She explained what really happened when the register got stuck.  She hadn’t been critical of what he said or how he said it.  She’d just been interested.  In other words, she improvised a lesson in tolerance and understanding. Patience, too.  It took a while.  What gymnasts do with limbs, she did with compliments.  To be honest, if politeness had fingers, she would have strangled him. 

She was a bit worried, I think.  Perhaps the children felt she’d picked on him.  Perhaps I did. You have to watch your back.  While she spoke, Abid sat on the carpet, as he always sat, among the other children – they left a generous space around him – looking at the room with his wide, brown eyes.  He was a nice boy.  Even nice boys can be annoying when they choose.  Not Abid.  He couldn’t say Good Afternoon, it’s true, although he heard it over a fifty times a day.  Miss didn’t just call out names from the list.  She greeted each child personally.  She cared for everyone. 

When the register was finished, she brought up the screen on the electronic board, superimposed a smaller screen, and presented the lesson.  Then she sat with the top group as usual.  Some children at my table had to copy from the board, so I asked her if she wouldn’t mind removing the smaller screen. 

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

She was right.  Use initiative.

The children were working quietly.  To help them stay on task – they were Year 2, remember – she gave commands from time to time in a firm, yet positive voice, things like, “Try to finish before afternoon play.”  

Then, under her breath, she added half a line, in this case, “Or next summer.”

She did it more than once, attached an adult gloss to what she said; comments which, for the most part, the children couldn’t hear, but, if they did, wouldn’t understand, not completely.  It was cynical, but it was fun; her way of coping, I suppose, with a day at school.  You have to do something. 

“Stop writing now.  If you started in the first place.”

Three o’clock.  Story time.  Miss picked up a copy of The Gruffalo and began to read aloud. She was very good.  I mean it now.  She changed her voice for each character, high for the mouse, deep for the Gruffalo, and, like an actor, gave real expression to it.  When she showed the illustrations, she held each page up knowingly, without haste, so the children could absorb and enjoy.

She didn’t have to do it.  I mean be so good.  It wasn’t in any lesson plan.  Not story time.   It was second nature to her.  For someone like Miss, so clever with performance of the written word, it was a kind of liberation, this ten-minute spell before the children went home.  It was easily the best work she had done all day.  It wasn’t teaching.