The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Fox crimes

“What’s that red thing on your face?”

Kirin has an eye for imperfection. 

It was half-term holiday, but he had homework from school.  To start with, a booklet on foxes, bats and owls.  The pages had been stapled together in booklet form, ready for the children to complete.  There was a title page, headings and page numbers, but they were upside down and back to front. 

“Mrs – did that,” said Kirin.  “She’s the teaching assistant.” 

The booklet was an insight into Mrs –’s mind.   

Maths, handwriting.  A comprehension.  I got him to underline the words he didn’t know.  There were lots. 

Crepuscular?” I read out aloud.

“Don’t you know what that means?” asked Kirin.  Afterwards, I showed the comprehension to his mother, and said it was too hard for Year 2, but she always defends the school.  

“That’s what he has to do.”    

“Crepuscular?  How many adults know what that means?”


There was another story.  A farmer kept a fox in a cage, a handsome brown fox.  The animal was unhappy and howled at the moon.  The farmer thought it was yearning for its freedom, so he opened the cage, but the fox didn’t move.  It just kept howling at the moon.  Then the farmer understood.  It wanted a wife.  It was howling at the fox in the moon.  The farmer reached up into the night sky and lifted down the fox in the moon.  Her coat was bright silver.  As soon as her feet touched the earth, she shook the silver colour from her sides.  She shook and shook until her coat was brown, like her husband’s.  There was baby-making.  I think this was written a while ago.

At the part where she shook the silver from her fur, I said it was like a wet dog shaking off water.  I thought I’d impress my young pupil.

“A fox moves like a cat,” he said.  He had seen them in his back yard.

When the cubs were born, there was silver on the tip of their fur.   I asked Kirin why.  Kirin.  The name means poet in Bengali. 

“Like your hair,” he replied.

“A fox poked its nose through my window once,” I said.  “It was hungry.  They come at night, and look for food in the rubbish bins.  They could steal a baby if there was one, or a small child.  In the room, I mean, not the rubbish.” 

 Kirin stared.  Foxes have their own timetable.  

“Your hair’s orange,” I said.

Every so often, when Kirin’s working well, I let him play with one of his toy cars.  I say, "You've got thirty seconds," and pretend to time him.  He runs the little wheels along the table and across the book in front of him, controlling each arc like a racing driver on a curve.  Last Saturday, I picked up one of his favourite cars.  It was small, and disappeared in my hand.  

“What would you do if I kept it?  Forever.” 

He looked at me, half-smiling.  I put the car down again.  He also has a flexible, plastic ruler.   It's a bit like a floppy sword.  I play with that, too.   

“I know how to break it,” I said.

“You can’t.”

“I can.  How do you think I’d do it?"

Kirin thought a moment, and came up with one or two ideas, but I shook my head.

"Put it in the freezer," I said.  "Leave it till it’s frozen hard, then take it out, and snap it in two.”  I held my fingers up and snapped an imaginary ruler.  “Don’t do it, though.  Mummy wouldn’t be pleased.”

We read one more story, about a vain emperor.  I went through vain and vein, showing the blue lines in my wrist.  Kirin placed his own arm on the polished table.  He had veins too.

When the lesson was over, I got up as I always did, but this time he said: “I don’t want you to go!”

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

My father is Chinese

Kirin’s family is from Bangla Desh.  He’s small for his age, a little, male version of his mother.  Like most children this size, he looks up a lot.  Mummy noticed, naturally, and put things on the wall for him to look at, charts and tables packed with information.  It was clever.  When homework is finished, and children everywhere look up from their books, Kirin looks up too, but, when he does, he goes on learning.

During our first lesson, one of these charts caught my eye.  It was on the wall next to me, in the dining room.

“That’s my old timetable,” he said. 

It was like a classroom timetable, but for seven days, and even more detailed, with all his activities in half-hour slots.  I looked for it the next time I went.  It wasn’t there.  She doesn’t want me to see it, I thought.  She forgot to take it down last week.  But he wasn't using it anymore. 

“The new one’s in the kitchen,” Kirin said.  We were doing Maths.  Afterwards, I told Mummy he didn’t know his times-tables. 

“There’s a chart in his bedroom,” she said.  I expect there is something in every room, a chart or a table on the wall, in case he forgets what to think. 

Kirin interrupted when I was speaking to her.  I was half-way through a sentence.  I thought she’d say, Wait, your teacher’s talking, but she turned to him and answered as if I wasn’t there. 

She came in once while we were working.  Kirin had some more Maths to do.   Equivalent fractions, in Year 2.   I made the same point several times, but he couldn’t understand.  Mummy chuckled.  She chuckled again.  Kirin swivelled round and looked at her.  Then he turned back and stared at the wall, but there’s no chart for laughter.

“He knows all that,” she said.  “He doesn’t concentrate.” 

When she left, he moved his legs around beneath the table.  He went on doing it.  It was starting to annoy me.  I told him to stop.  He put his two feet on the chair opposite and pushed it. 

“Don’t do that,” I said.  He did it again immediately.  We were near the end of a long lesson.  I said in a soft voice, “Don’t do that again, ever, or I’ll tell your mother.” 

He looked across at me with wondering eyes, but he didn’t do it again. 

The front door opened. 

“That’s my father,” Kirin said.  “He’s Chinese.” 

There was something in his tone.  I had my back to the doorway.  I wanted to turn around and look, but that was what a child would have done.  I’m a teacher.   I just looked more closely at the boy in front of me.  I couldn’t help it.  That’s a Bengali face, I thought, but I didn’t reply.

“He’s a builder,” persisted Kirin, with the same tone of voice, as if he had a list of things to tell me, all disappointments, which he’d kept in his head a long time, and was now ticking off one by one.

Parents are touchy about their children, but children are touchy about them.  Think back to the playground: Your mother married a Chinaman!  You get your clothes from Oxfam!  Your father is a builder!  

Daddy was still behind me, in the passageway.  I could hear him.  I realised he wasn’t coming in to see me.  I couldn’t resist any longer.  I turned around.  He had his back to me.  I still couldn’t see his face, but he was wearing a nice suit.

Kirin’s father is a Chinese builder.  Or Kirin was sick of learning.

Monday, 15 June 2015


Kirin is my newest student.  When I write about people, I normally get them from the past, and dust them off for you, but I’m still tutoring Kirin.  On Saturday, if you came along, you’d see me sitting next to him, a very young man with a very cute smile, sparkling with his own, silver dust.  It’s a risk writing about the present.  You don’t know what will happen. 

I go to his place.  In the dining room, there’s a heavy, wooden table, polished dark-brown.  It’s perfect for a formal dinner, and Kirin’s lesson.  When I arrive, he is always ready on his chair.  There’s a pile of books in the middle of the table.  The first time I went, I saw the books before I saw the boy.  They are taller than he is when he’s sitting down.  His little face scarcely pokes above the polished wood.  Just enough to teach.  Kirin is an only child.  At that table, he looks like one. 

Every son is a genius, until he grows old enough, and the evidence builds up enough, to show something different.  Till then, the little chap is not doing his best.  He needs to concentrate, try harder.  That’s where Mummy comes in.

All Kirin’s books are brand new.  Mummy stacks them perfectly.  There are, in fact, two big piles.  A pile of textbooks for Maths and English, and a pile of dictionaries – yes, a pile – heavy, adult ones.  Just looking at them, you feel the weight of dictionaries, and expectation.  The books, like the table, are against him.  How to shift the learning into the little head?  That’s where Tutor comes in.

At school, Kirin has an end-of-year test.  That’s right, in Year 2.  It’s why Mummy hired a tutor.  She’s doing everything she can.  You can’t say she isn’t.  Like most mothers of young children, she knows what she wants.  As Kirin is an only child, she knows even more, and, because I go there every week, she knows what she wants from me, too.   Before each lesson, she decides the work, and leaves it out for me to teach.  It makes another pile on the table.

I’ve tutored on a lot of surfaces.  This one is shining clean.  When I sit down with Kirin, there’s no need to push crumbs away, or call for a damp cloth to wipe up someone’s mess.  

“Keep your foot still,” I said to him, quietly.

“But my shoe came off.”

Like her son, Mummy is always ready with an answer, even if it’s not the right one.  There’s a word they both like a lot.  But.

“Those dictionaries may be a little hard,” I said to her, quietly. 

“But I help him with it.”

I’ve been tutoring Kirin for several weeks.  When Mummy’s in the dining room, he’s very good.  When she’s out the back, he’s not too bad.  But sometimes she isn’t home at all.  Once, when I got there, he was screaming.  I was in the front garden, but I could hear.  I knocked.  Silence.  Another silence, then the babysitter opened the door.  Inside, everything looked the same.  Kirin was at the table as he always was, bobbing on the lake of polished wood.  The books were still in front of him.  To the left, as usual, he had his box of pencils, a huge box with all his equipment and several ordinary pencil cases.  Whatever instrument a boy needs to prove his intellect.

When I got to know him, I joked about the big box of pencils.   I said it was a pencil case in a pencil case in a pencil case.  He didn’t smile the first time I said it.  He smiled the second time.  I didn’t smile either the first time he fooled around.

Sunday, 7 June 2015


If you have visitors, and run out of things to say, flowers are useful.  They’re not as difficult as pets or babies, not for most people, anyway.  Pretty little things, they wait outside until you need them, and always nod their heads. 

My neighbour’s parents came to see him.  They don’t come too often.  They’re more like hardy annuals that push up in the spring.  Let’s have a look at the garden.  This year, they were spending a long time on one flower, a lot longer than people normally do.  They hadn’t gone mad.  There was only one flower.  The rest of the garden was bare. 

I remember it quite clearly, a tall stem, with a patch of white petals at the top, like a tiny flag, as if the earth had surrendered.

Think of a stalk and petals, and personal injury won’t be your next thought.  If you want to hit someone, you don’t use a flower.  But they can still be dangerous.  Last year, twenty-seven UK residents were poisoned by daffodils.  That’s right, people ate them, twenty-seven at least.  They’re just the ones that got sick, delicate hunter-gatherers, or poets – in short, those not immune to daffodils. 

This spring, supermarkets were advised not to put daffodils in, or adjacent to, the fresh food aisle.  It might cut down on errors, but it won’t stop a devoted self-harmer.  You can grow your own.  Well, most people can.

Supermarkets wait for you.  They watch you cross the forecourt.  You might not know the difference between a toothpick and a needle.   

As for the daffodils, blame poetry.  Where there is beauty, there is suffering.  We can hold a stalk and petals, and not know it’s a flower.  That sort of thing.  But fruit is dangerous too.  I was physically assaulted for a bunch of bananas.  Poets don’t write about bananas. 

A banana is not a flower.  You can hold it, or eat it, and still feel nothing.  But when you can’t get things, you want them.  In Greece, years ago, you couldn’t get bananas.  I brought some back from India.  I wanted to impress a few people up in the Old Town, then eat them, the bananas, I mean.  I also had a copy of The Times of India.  News print is black.  Bananas just go that way.  Like friends that bruise, they are not the best travelling companions.   

In those days, a bus ran from the airport to the centre of Salonica.  It stopped on the waterfront, near Aristotelous Square.  From there, I used to walk up the hill.  That afternoon, I’d just turned the corner into Egnatia.  I must have been holding other things as well, but I only remember the bananas.  A man gripped my arm, the one with the bananas.  His fingers felt like metal.  He wanted my bananas, but he wasn’t stealing them.  How much were they?  His voice was like his fingers.  I couldn’t move.  I’m not exaggerating.  I was back in Greece.

The skyline looked the same, and the castellation on it, like a toy at that distance, where my bananas had been going. 

Cut from a tree in India, carried on a plane to Greece, and turned into custard on the top of a hill.  Is that the sort of history you want for your bananas? 

The man with metal fingers let me go.  A passer-by said: “Leave him alone.”

I didn’t do the cooking, but I allowed it to happen.  They were my bananas.  The Old Town was full of passers-by.  No one said: Leave them alone.

The man with metal fingers should have got them.