The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Home truths

I arrived one day at a pupil’s house.  The boy’s uncle let me in, and called upstairs, “Adil, your tutor’s here.”
“Oh, shit!” floated back, softly and bitterly.  Adil is sixteen.  He’s calm and pleasant.  Too calm at times.  In one lesson, he fell asleep.  How do you wake someone who’s bigger than you?   I’ve fallen asleep too.  In my lesson.  I really have. 
Oh, shit!  I felt sorry for him when he said it.  I don’t know what his uncle felt.  He had spoken very softly, breathed more than spoken.  Not softly enough.  The walls are pretty thin out there.  I heard someone fart in the house next door. 
Adil had forgotten I was coming, but we still did the lesson.  Not all my pupils answer when I knock.  They’re home; they’re not asleep, or ill; they just don’t answer.  Once, I saw a boy through the curtains, sitting with his mother.  They were on the sofa together, so close their thighs were touching.  With a straight back, his head reached her shoulder.  They knew I was coming.  I came every week.  They had sat down to wait, and not answer. 
The sofa faced the window.  No hiding out the back for these two.  Anyone could knock.  They didn’t want to snub the wrong person.  And what if I didn’t come?  They’d want to know.  They were taking the trouble to deceive me.  It was also fun.  I could feel the anticipation through the window.  
I knocked a few more times.  I’m not sure why.  Nothing to do now but wait for me to go.  Whichever way you look at it, they were smart.  Just buy some decent curtains. 
In some families, the children take charge.  One boy kept me waiting in the snow.  This happened every lesson.   I rang the bell.  His grandmother called him to open the door.  I could hear her in the house.  I’m not sure what language it was.  It didn’t matter.  He ignored her.  Boys like it upstairs.  She didn’t come herself.  I don’t think she ever left the kitchen, and there was no one else at home.  In the meantime, I got to know the door. 
He let me in eventually, but we couldn’t start the lesson.  He disappeared.  When he came back, five minutes later, he was holding a plate of cakes in both hands, round ones in different colours, the cakes I mean, and a pile of slices.  Grandma again.
In what was left of the hour, he ate the cakes in front of me.  He always kept a piece till the end, but he ate them all.  A useful skill for a child to have.  I thought you just swallowed cake.  It’s actually quite complicated.  First, you feel it with your eyes.  Then, you use your fingers.  With Grandma’s cake, there’s no need to bite; just tease it with your lips.  Then, sit back and feel the cake inside you.  He taught me all this.  He didn’t listen.  Without the cake, there would have been no lesson.    
After a few weeks, I stopped the tuition.  I don’t normally.  Why let the pupil win?  I’d rather have the money.  When I cancelled, it wasn’t just the cake, or being left out in the snow.  It was the dumb malice I could feel inside him.
A month or so passed.  I saw him on the street, an ex-pupil now, talking to some cake enthusiasts.  Oh, shit!  None of them knew me, but they laughed when he did, and repeated the insults he shouted.  We are all ex-pupils.  It was liberating.

Sunday, 23 August 2015


“What did Céline give her pet snail for Christmas?” 

The Year 3s were passing through a joke phase, and I thought I’d help out, beyond the lesson plan. 

Céline tipped her head and made a funny face.  She has her own charm.  She stresses the first syllable of her name.  It’s one of those things the French can do.  The children had picked it up.  I took a bit longer. 

There were some hopeful answers, but I shook my head.  After a certain time, like a vaudeville routine, the whole class chanted, “We don’t know, Mr Spaid.  What did Céline give her pet snail for Christmas?” 

Céline.  They got the intonation right even when they chanted.  The riddles were inventive, but not very funny.  I won’t go through them all.  After my Christmas joke, Céline had not spoken.  Her eyes sparkled, though.    

The windows were open.  A smell was floating in. 

“That’s the Chinese restaurant,” I explained.  "It’s just over there.  They do stuff with snails.”

“Yuk!” someone said.

“What did you have for lunch?” I responded.

“Chicken with salad.”

“Are you sure?”  

At half past three, or a little after, the children are collected by their parents.  Céline’s father comes.  He’s never the first in, but he’s not the last, either.  There are still plenty of children about.  He looks around sympathetically, and says things like, “They are running you a merry race, monsieur.” 

Once, he complained about Céline: “I speak to her in French, and she answers in English!” 

At home time, she stands next to me.  She doesn’t run about like the others.  We keep an eye on the gate.  When her father walks in, she makes a sad face.  One day, she said, “I wish he didn’t come so soon!” 

The jokes were getting sillier.  I wasn’t helping, I suppose.  They could do one more.  Céline raised her hand.  

“Why did Mr Spaid go to the toilet?”  

She looked at me sweetly.  In summer term, she wears a cotton frock, like the other girls, but she also has tights that come down to the knee.  She always wears them, even if it’s hot.  Her mother's Algerian.  We haven't met.  One home time, I  prompted Céline about her.

“Your Daddy likes me.  Do you think your Mummy would like me too?”

She thought a moment.  “I told her about you.”   

I remember the first time she hugged me.  We had stopped for lunch.  I was sitting on the soft chair, at the edge of the carpet, while the children left the room.  Céline was leaving too, but, as she passed in front of me, she stepped across quickly, and put her arms around me. 

Mr Spaid.  The toilet.  It was a tricky one.  The children were stuck, or preferred not to answer. 

“Why did Mr Spaid go to the toilet?”

“We don’t know, Céline.”   Céline with the golden curls.  “Why did Mr Spaid go to the toilet?” 

“To have a poo!”

Some punchlines never happen.  I was catching the bus, opposite the restaurant with a choice of snails.  Bus stops get crowded after school.  A minute ago, there were places to sit, but you won’t find one now.  Céline was standing with her father.  I raised my hand.  When she saw me, she called out my name, and ran towards me as if she knew why, past the shelter and the row of people who had found a place to sit, so fast I thought she’d tumble into me.  She stopped, though, and smiled at me instead.  She smiled at herself.  She had almost hugged me. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015


Kay invited us to dinner, Jade and Joy, and some others from the course.  She was at her best when she’d been rehearsing, and she hosted a lot of dinners.  She took control, or thought she did. 

Thanks to her husband, Kay lived in a big house in Panórama, outside Salonica, among the hills and chestnut trees, and the rich people. 

When all the guests were there, we sat down at the table.  A moment later, Jade got up again and straightened her chair. 

“Are you leaving?” I said.

She laughed like a child.  Kay looked over and was about to speak, but saw that no one else was laughing.  Jade asked for gin and Coke; Joy, just Coke.  I was drinking wine.  I forget what I ate, but a bowl of roasted chestnuts was in front of me.   I won’t forget those.

Kay was speaking to Manur, a young man from India.  Did he know any relaxation techniques?  To demonstrate, he stood behind Maria, our class teacher, who was in her thirties.  He brought his hands up to her head and pressed the temples lightly with his fingers, the way you probe a nectarine to see if you can eat it.  He did this very seriously.  She was just as solemn.  Everyone was waiting to see what would happen.   
“Manur’s touching Maria,” I said.  Jade turned to me and smiled.  Not her usual, sarcastic smile, or the giggling one.  Her other, conspiring smile, as far as lips can go when you're out to dinner.  

“You’ve got lovely hair.”  It was Kay talking.  She was right.  Maria had a lot of thick, blonde curls. 

Jade reached for the bowl, picked the largest chestnut she could see, and turned it over with her fingertips, suspiciously, then started peeling.

“Take your hand off my nuts,” I said. 

“Is that a wig in your hair?” she replied when she’d finished peeling – “I’ve always wanted to know” – and popped the chestnut in her mouth.

In those days, I had a lot of hair.  She grabbed a clump, just above the eyes, and pulled it hard.  Then she sat back, examining the nut with her teeth.  I doubt she’d thought ahead about what she would do if my hair came off in her hand. 

That’s all I remember from Kay’s dinner.

“There’s a tarantula on the back seat.”

In the taxi, on the way home.  Joy’s sober voice.  She leant forward, away from my arm, and didn’t speak again.  Jade was on the other side of her.  Apart from Joy, no one spoke; not the Greek driver, who didn’t want tarantulas, but hadn’t understood what Joy said, let alone what she intended; not even Jade, who, like most girls, despite the flow of gin, was not normally indifferent to spiders.  In the back seat of a taxi, a little Greek taxi speeding into town, there may not be a lot you can do.  

A few months later, when Jade and Joy were gone, Kay invited me again.  The first dinner had been of interest only because they were there.  I was bored now without them, and showed it.  When I was leaving, Kay handed me a book of recipes.  International cuisine.  I thought she was lending it, which implied further dinners, another meeting, at least, no hard feelings, and the chance to return it.

It was just an old paperback that Kay didn’t want.  She didn’t tell me.  She had no intention of inviting me back.  She was acting till the end.  Cookery for citizens of the world.  I never saw her again. Cook for yourself in future.  

Saturday, 8 August 2015


Kay was like a pill that seized your insides.  She was older than the rest of us.  She’d been around, a citizen of the world, she said, in her Kay voice, like waving a flag.  New Zealand was one place she’d been.  When her plane was landing, the pilot announced, “We’re now arriving in New Zealand.  Put your clocks back thirty years.”

She told us this anecdote more than once, over several weeks, each time with the same, marvelling laugh.  I don’t know if she listened to herself.  

Kay was English.  We met at the university in Salonica, on the housewives’ course, as someone put it, Joy, I think.  It was Greek conversation – how to go shopping, travel, entertain – the sort of thing, when you think about it, that Kay excelled in.  You felt the real learning went on elsewhere.  The only housewife was Kay.   

Citizen of the world, perhaps, but she did all her travelling on her husband’s back – Ulrich or something, a jovial German who worked for his national airline, in offices, not cockpits, and got shifted from country to country.  Every time they moved, she learnt the new language.  She had hours to fill, remember. 

“Kay’s quite a linguist,” Ulrich said.  “When we lived in Kathmandu, she spoke Nepali with the local children.”   

When he said that, I wondered – I couldn’t help it – what the local grown-ups were doing.

Near the start of our course, we visited the ethnological museum – more housewife stuff – on Vasilissis Olgas, a main street in the centre.  It’s an elegant, old building in the Greek tradition, with a tiled roof and shutters, but crowded now by grey apartment blocks, as though someone left it there, forgot about it, and never came back; the kind of building you see in the islands, a whole row along the waterfront.  

Another warm day, but in the museum it was cool and dark – like a building in the islands, add some traffic noise.  One room was set up as a kitchen from the past.  Everything looked heavy and hard to use.  A guide explained in Greek.  Kay kept nodding as if she understood, but she couldn’t have.  Not so much.  We didn’t know the language well enough.  And she didn’t just nod.  She also asked questions in Greek, or tried to.  The guide didn’t understand, and replied in English, but Kay shook her finger.  She pushed her lips out elastically, like massaging the air, and went on making phrases.  If I’m exaggerating, so was Kay. 

“Ocky, ocky!” she said, looking agitated, when she couldn’t express herself.  No.  It’s a popular word in Greece, like tomorrow.  She couldn’t do the guttural middle sound, but she wouldn’t have done it even if she could.  She wasn’t going to clear her throat in public. 

At last, she stopped trying.  She pushed her lips out one more time, gently, like sucking something in through a straw.  The tour moved on.  In the next room, Joy said: “I find Kay quite alarming.”

Jade never criticised Kay, not in front of me, unless I’ve forgotten.  This happened a long time ago.  I think she admired Kay, and saw a version of herself, the way she’d like to be around the age of forty, a woman of the world.  Like most girls, Jade approved of freedom, spontaneity, or what looked like freedom, or she thought she did.  With a glass of gin beside her, she approved even more.

A few weeks ago, I saw Jade’s photo on the internet.  She’s older now than Kay was then, quite a lot older.  Put your clock back thirty years.  I don’t know what Jade remembers.