The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

I taught you that

September, the new school term.  I was covering Year 11.  The Maths teacher was off already.  She’d set some work, multiple choice questions.  I just had to sit there, but that’s hard for me.

The girls were coming in.  One of them had a red coat.  I didn’t know her, and I don’t remember her name.  She stood out, though.  Everybody else was blue.

“That’s a nice coat,” I said.  

“Thank you.”

“Is it red for danger?”  She giggled.  “Embarrassment?”  She giggled a bit longer. 

Then Zaina walked in with her friends.  When she saw me, she stopped, no longer so sure about doing Maths.  I said her name without meaning to.  It’s not what teachers normally do when a pupil walks in.  Something had unsettled her: either she still loved me; she regretted telling me she did; I’d clearly not forgotten; or (D), all of the above.  I know.  (D) is not appropriate in Maths. 

Hundreds of girls go to that school.  They say things all the time.  A whole summer had trickled by.  How had I remembered what one girl said?  She must have felt unlucky. 

Zaina sat down.  Everyone was chatting.  The teaching assistant looked annoyed.

“If you make too much noise,” I said, “the teacher next door will hear.  I’ll be sacked.”  

The girl in the red coat giggled again.

“Be careful.  I’ll give you a window of opportunity.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s what I call detention.  If I give you a detention, your parents’ll complain: ‘He’s only a supply teacher.  He can’t give you a detention.  Who does he think he is?’  But if I give you a window of opportunity, it’s another matter.”

Red Coat giggled again.  The assistant got tired of it, and told her to stop, 

“It’s partly my fault, Miss.  I might be encouraging her, without meaning to, of course.”

“That’s right!” Red Coat said, warmly, as if she’d been absolved,

“Now I know what the red is for,” I said.  “Anger.”

She giggled again.  A girl came in with a message for the class.  She must have been a prefect or something.  She stood at the front of the room as if she was used to it, and addressed the girls like a teacher.  They all listened closely.  When she’d finished, I told them, “That’s not fair.  You listen to her, but not to me!” 

“I need water,” gasped Red Coat.  She was giggling non-stop.  “Can I go to the toilet?”

“I don’t recommend it.  (Her name here) and toilets don’t mix.”

She just giggled more loudly, so I let her leave the room.  When she came back, she was calmer.  She looked up from her work and said, quite seriously: “Do you like Tina?” 


Now she shrieked. 

“Why do you keep talking to him?” Zaina said to the girl in the red coat.  A quiet reproach.  She was a quiet girl.  That lesson, it was all I heard her say.

Tina was in a different set for Maths.  I saw her later, at the bus stop. 

“The last time I had you, you were very bad.” 

“I wasn’t.”

“You were.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were.”

“I wasn’t.”


“You’re being bad now.”

She smiled.

“You sat on the floor.”

“I was feeling dizzy.”


“Tina, have I ever taught you anything?”

She thought for a moment, smiled again, and gave her head a profound, little shake.   It made her pigtails wiggle.  Then the bus pulled up.

“Wait.  If I get on first, you can avoid me.” 

“That’s true,” she reflected.

“I taught you that.”

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

I love you so much

For most things, there’s a price to pay.  I must have known that when I sat next to Tina on the bus to school and put my bag in her lap, but I did it anyway. 

The next time I saw her, we were in class.  She was talking loudly when the other girls were trying to work.  Someone called me over and complained in a soft voice.  After a moment or two, I said, “Tina, you're making too much noise.  I’ve had a complaint from one of your colleagues.”

In a classroom full of girls, five or six tables compete, at intervals, like teams on a netball court.  Tina knew where the complaint had come from.  She either heard the girl, or guessed when I told her to be quiet.  She swivelled round and looked at the table behind her, smiling ironically.  She was amused, though, and worked quietly for a while.

If I don’t know what to do, I go for a walk, in the classroom, I mean.  I don’t sit down.  The teacher’s desk can feel like a trap, but Tina’s back was pointing that way.  It seemed like a good place to be.  To get there, I had to walk past her.  It only took a second – I just flitted by – but she looked up straightaway and said, “I get goose bumps when you walk behind me.”

“That’s interesting,” I replied, “but there’s nothing I can do.  You should speak to a qualified healthcare professional.”  Then I turned to the class: “Is there a school nurse here?”

“Yes, shall I go and get her?” someone piped up.  It was the girl who had complained.

“On second thoughts.”

Tina got even noisier.  It was time for a serious talk.

“Just because I see you on the bus and train,” I said, “it doesn’t mean you can behave badly in class.” 

Zaina, by the window, turned her head and looked across at us.  I went on, “You look so sweet and innocent when you’re waiting for the bus.”

“That’s different,” answered Tina.  She packed away, moved over to the door, and sat down in front of it, on the floor, with her legs crossed.  She stayed there in silence until the bell went, then slipped out before the other girls.  Some moments passed.  I realised Zaina was still in the room, with two friends.  She had waited till I looked up, then started walking.  She stopped in front of my desk, and said, “I love you so much!”

You can’t always tell when someone loves you.  It can be a quite unlikely person.  And, when you find out, there may not be a lot you can do.  I didn’t know what to say.  It deserved something, though, this declaration, another phrase, at least; an arrow on the heart line, somewhere in between “I love you too” and “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You love me so much?” I repeated, just adding a question mark.  I felt relieved; I had almost laughed, before I saw she wasn’t joking.

She was at the door now.  She was nearly gone.  The question mark didn’t feel enough.  How could someone take so long to think?  I managed: “I’ll remember that forever.”

Zaina turned her head to me again,   Heads aren’t so heavy, not normally, when a lesson finishes.  Then she walked out. 

I’ll remember that forever.

As soon as I said it, I knew it was wrong.  A feeling might not last so long.  A girl can change her mind.  She might not want you to remember.  

Sunday, 13 September 2015

An X through the middle

The boat to Mount Athos.  A breeze pushed up little waves, white-crested, like tips of rock.  Monks sat by the railing, motionless.  They didn’t watch the coast.  When the spray forced itself above the railing, and burst like diamonds on their black robes, they still didn’t move.

There was a barrel of brown eels on the deck, live ones, squirming in the sun; baskets of silver fish just taken from the water; rope in heavy piles, and other things I can’t remember, things you find on real boats, on a real ocean. 

A crowd of seagulls followed the boat, each beating off the others’ wings, and shrieking, as if a bird could drown in the air.  One gull came very low across the deck.  A monk reached out for it, languidly, copying the motion of the bird.  If he’d caught it, he would have been surprised.  The gull would have been surprised too.

We docked at Dionysíou.  I landed with the monk, the one who moved his arm.  He was Dutch, studying the form and intricacy of prayer.  That’s what he said.  The monastery had a reputation.  For a gang of men, and monks especially, there are worse things than cleverness with prayer.

He took me through a courtyard, up some stairs, and rang a bell.  A monk brought sweets and ouzo, and tiny cups of black coffee.  The Dutchman had lived there for three months.  His eyes were still darting about.  I mentioned the woman who’d been caught on Athos, masquerading as a man.  She was Dutch too.

“In my country,” he replied, “anyone can pass for a man.”

He knew a place on the mountain; not going far, but I wouldn’t find it alone.  A path runs up, more stair than path, by the monastery garden.  The land is so steep, the garden lies in tiers, each with a stone wall, like pools of soil.  There were vegetables at that time of year, fruit trees in blossom, and tanks of mountain water.  You can climb it from the bottom, but step back, and you'll wonder how. 

The Dutchman walked ahead, breathing heavily.  His hands and the back of his neck shone with sweat.  He stopped several times, although – he was right – it wasn’t far. 

There’s a ledge above the monastery, with flowers in spring, just coloured spots, really, and a bench to rest on.  When you get here, all you do is stare: the slate rooves, the courtyard, the church inside – a stone bird in a stone nest – and, beyond that, the sea. 

Some photographs I’ve never taken.

We sat down.  He pulled a cigarette from his robe.  

“You’re not Orthodox, perhaps not even religious.  Here the Greeks will tell you of the true faith.  They may even convert you.  The mountain needs new blood.”

He didn’t use the past tense.  While he smoked, he left the matchbox on his knee.  There was a woman on the label in an old-fashioned dress.  Someone had circled her with thick, red pencil, and put an X through the middle.

“We must go,” he said, abruptly.  “They’ll be eating soon.  Today is a saint’s day, and a special meal is planned.”

He reached down and stubbed the cigarette on a flat stone, then lifted the edge, revealing a stash of butts.  He added the new butt, replaced the stone, and stood up.  A gull fluttered from the slope above us, and made a white arc across the water, right around the monastery.

 “I have a book about the saint.  You might like to look at it later.”

Sunday, 6 September 2015

What about me?

The last time I took Famina’s class, I came in to relieve the normal teacher.  The door was at the back of the room.  Famina was sitting right in front of it, facing away.  When I walked in, she turned around and whispered, “Have we got you?”

I nodded, and waited by the door.  The teacher was lecturing the class, something about the perils of a low grade.  The atmosphere was desperate.  Meanwhile, Famina gazed at me.  The girl next to her had turned around too.  Teachers notice that kind of thing, two blue scarves where faces should have been.  Miss let them alone for a minute, until her patience ran out.

“Face the front, girls.  You’ll have the whole lesson to look at him.”

She finished her lecture, and walked off.  Maths.  I’ve always thought there were too many numbers.  When the lesson was over, Famina’s table stayed put, as if they had some business to settle.  Someone – I think the girl next to Famina – asked me: “Who’s your best friend?”

Girls are very good at this.  Whatever I said would be wrong, but I had to answer.  If I didn’t, if for any reason I didn’t say Famina,  Famina would be annoyed.  But if I said Famina, someone else’s feelings could be hurt.  That was her intention, at least, when she asked me the question in a casual way.

I didn’t say a name, just pointed at Famina.  And it was hardly pointing.  I only raised a finger.  It was still far too much.  

“What about me?” protested Melissa.  Her voice was deeply pained. 

I don’t know where every girl is from, and I don’t ask anymore.  Melissa had a scarf to hide her hair, like the other girls, but her face and hands were white.  She had tested me once, if I knew her name.  Famina had too, more than once.  A girl’s name needs to be remembered.  I passed these little tests. Others, I failed.

Melissa was a bad girl, apparently.  She was on behaviour report, forever, it seemed, and carried a yellow card around.  She’d leave it on the teacher’s desk, and pick it up at the end of the lesson.  I had to put a comment in the box, just a word or two.  She was never bad for me, although she didn’t do much work, and she did like to sit on the floor.  In the box, I always wrote that she’d been excellent, even if she wasn’t. 

Girls check what you write on their report.  Melissa is no different.  The week before, I put Excellent once too often.  We both knew she hadn’t been.  She nearly said something.  Her lips even opened.  She expected me to tell the truth.  But she didn’t want me to, either. 

We took too long that day.  The rest of the class had gone.  Melissa’s friends came back to look for her.  One of them asked: “What are you two doing?”

And Melissa was the child on report.

This time, another girl was with us, the one who’d set the best-friend riddle.  For once, Melissa had been excellent, truly excellent.  Now, by just lifting a finger, I had injured her.  When she looked at me, I thought she was going to cry.   

“Can I have my report?”

“It’s on the table.”

She had to walk past me.  I was sitting down, but looked up: “You’re my best friend too.  I just couldn’t say so in front of Famina.”

“Have you been cheatin’ on us?” said the other girl.  She mimicked the accent from a movie.

“It looks like it,” I said.