The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Lost Lending Library

Something exciting happened this week at Kirin’s school.  The Lost Lending Library appeared.  It turned up in the yard on Wednesday morning, just like that, and nobody knew where it came from, not even the teachers. 

In morning assembly, the headteacher said that every class could go and look inside.  There were, however, one or two things the children should remember.  To begin with, when they arrived, the door would be open, wide open, and they’d see a man reading a book.  He mightn’t notice them at first, so they’d have to cough politely.  The head also mentioned the chairs.  Each one was made out of books, but it was all right; the children were allowed to sit on them.

When it was their turn, Kirin’s teacher, Miss So-and-so, brought the class down.  They’d had to wait a very long time.  Let’s hope it’s still there!  Maybe it got lost somewhere else.  But it was still in the yard, and, sure enough, the door was open, wide open, and they could see a man reading a book, sitting on a seat made of dictionaries, and he didn’t notice them, just as the headteacher said.

“Remember what you have to do,” Miss So-and-so prompted.  Someone coughed, and another.  Then everybody did it.  Nothing happened.  The man just didn’t hear. 

“Cough again, louder.”  But it was no good.  He still didn’t notice.  “This time, let’s do one big ahem, all together, no shouting though.” 

It worked.  The man looked up at the crowd of shining faces, and said, in a startled voice, “Have you been there long?  Come in, come in!”

There was one more room, he explained, further inside, full of books to read.  He showed them a bookcase that was really a door, with no key or handle.  Instead, you put a book through a slot, and the door opened by itself.  The man let someone do it.  They all went in.

“Inside,” Kirin said, “there were millions of books, and all the chairs were made of books too.”

“Millions?” I queried, softly.  “Did you count them?  Did you use the expanded column method?”

Kirin chuckled. 

And was the Library really lost?  There was no name on it, Kirin said.  The sign, I admitted, could have fallen off when the Library was bumping across London, but, I pointed out, every book in every library in every country in the world had the name of its library printed on it.  He was surrounded by books.  All he had to do was look.  I was on a roll.

“Why didn’t the man hear you?” I continued.  “He wasn’t deaf, was he?”  Kirin shook his head, somewhat guardedly. “He was just pretending not to hear.  Why?”

Kirin didn’t know.

“He was showing you how magical books can be.  You lose track of the world around you.”

Kirin wasn’t chuckling anymore.

“And when you put the book in the slot, and the shelves opened like a door, what did that mean?” 

We’d been doing metaphors, but I went straight on.

“Books open up a world of adventure.”

Back in the real world, Kirin had a list of questions, and a sentence to finish, for homework: ‘Since I visited the Lost Lending Library, I…’  I told him to say something his teacher would like, “For example, ‘I’ve decided to read as many books as possible.’”

Kirin thought a moment, then started writing.  Although he frequently annoys me, when he does get down to writing, it’s worth it just to watch, he’s so serious, so composed.  He didn’t write much, but I could tell he’d done his best.  I took his paper, and read: “Since I visited the Library, I thought they are the most boring places in the world.” 

Friday, 23 October 2015


In Kirin’s dining room, on the wall by the table, there’s a giant bookshelf, shaped like a locomotive.  He often refers to it.  I mean he talks about the shape.  He doesn't touch the books.  The shelves are full of law, psychology and finance.  Learning can be fun for the little passenger, and, when he grows up, he can chug off happily to any profession. 

A child can’t always wait that long.  Every lesson, Kirin asks to go to the toilet.  Every time, I say no.  He presses his legs together and screws up his face.  I let him go.   He hobbles off.  Who knows?  One day, he might be telling the truth. 

The last time he hobbled off, I said: “Don’t break your leg on the stairs.  I’ll have to go home early.” 

A moment later, there was a catastrophic, tumbling noise, a series of loud thumps, not unlike a boy breaking his leg on the stairs.  I saw him through the doorway, looking at me with a cunning grin.  Then he went upstairs.

I could smell something.  He hadn’t done it, had he?  Wet himself.  I peered down at the empty chair, and sniffed.  I really did.  Children wet themselves; they vomit.  They do in my lessons, anyway.  No sign on his chair.  It didn’t seem possible, or, if it was possible, it didn’t seem right, to wet yourself one moment, and break your leg the next.  No one could be so unlucky, not even Kirin.  The smell was Mummy’s cooking.

“I’m the most intelligent child in my class,” he announced when he got back.

“It’s not very intelligent to go to the toilet when you don’t need to.”

He had homework from school, as usual.  For Maths, the expanded column method of addition.  It was no match for us.  English.  There were antonyms.  For fun, we got unfun.  And synonyms for small.  We came up with micro-banana.  Then similes.  There was a bowl of fruit on the table.  We discovered that my brain was like a fruit salad.  Next, rhymes for mumble.  There was rumble, humble, and tumbleStumble.  I said bumble last.  He giggled.  I knew he would.

We had to put the words in a sentence, not one sentence for all of them (though I did that too).  His teacher wanted ‘wow words.’  We let her have them.  Kirin was fond of flabbergasted.  We checked the spelling in his dictionary, the biggest one, before creating: “Kirin may be miniscule, but he’s flabbergobsmackeredlyblasted intelligent.” 

It was hard to be appropriate in every sentence, not too violent, or off-colour, or in some way disturbing for his teacher at school, who was going to mark his work.  I tried my best.  So did Kirin.  If something I said sounded wrong, for any reason, he’d declare: “Too violent!”

“The rumble in my stomach had no earthly explanation.”

“Too violent!”

“The humble shark apologised for eating the lady.”

“Too violent!”

“The family car tumbled into the sea–”

“Sharks swam in through the windows,” he added. 

“Too violent!” I said.  “–and afterwards all that was found was a baby’s booty, washed up on the shore.”

“Too violent!”

Each time he said it, his voice got louder.

“Kirin!” Mummy called.  She was still in the kitchen, eavesdropping.

Schoolwork done, it was time for my own activities.    

“Write the date,” I said.  The fifth of September came out 19.15.15.  I said, “This is pointless.” 

“It’s as if you think I’m useless.”  He looked upset.

“No.  If I thought you were useless, I’d say, ‘You’re useless.’  But I don’t think you’re useless, so I didn’t say it.  I meant if you can’t get the date right, there’s no point in going on.  Stop trying to make me feel sorry for you.  If anyone needs feeling sorry for, it’s me.  I’ve got a boy who won't write the date.”

We don’t bother with the date anymore.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

When I’m twenty-five

Last Saturday, Mummy let Kirin bring a toy downstairs, a big one, I can’t remember what.  He sat down at the table for our lesson, grinning at the toy, and started to play with it.  She snatched it off him, saying he could put it there, but he couldn’t play with it.  He burst into tears, and she took it away,

“It’s prohibited.”

He calmed down and opened his book.  I've got him to write in pen – it's easier for me to read – though he still uses pencil at school.  He doesn’t have his pen licence yet.  His handwriting isn't very good.  Anyway, on the page where he’d done my homework, a splash of water had smudged the ink, and dried.  I stared at it for a second.  It was a tear drop.

“What happened?”  I wasn't horrified, but I didn’t feel so good, either.

“The homework was too hard.”

I thought, A lot of crying goes on in this house.

“It won’t happen again.”

“What’s that on your finger?”  He had seen the plaster on it.

“I cut it.  Not on purpose.  I’m easily hurt.”

“How did you do it?”

“With scissors.”

But he was sceptical.  He wanted to know how a grown man could cut himself.

“I was using one of the blades like a knife, and it slipped.  I said to myself, ‘How could a man of your age do such a stupid thing?  What a fool I am!”

All the time I spoke, Kirin was observing me, but he  looked a lot happier now.

“Have you done anything stupid lately?  I won’t tell,” I encouraged, in a whisper.

“I threw a lump of cheese at a fox, with a nail in it.”  Kirin spoke softly.  “When he ate it, the nail was pushing at his cheek.  I could see the lump.”

“You shouldn’t give food to animals you don’t know.”  Then I paused.  “If you hadn’t mentioned the nail, I would have believed you.  It’s a good story, though.”

For his school homework, he had to read a passage and answer questions, as usual.   It was the old tale about the wolf and pigs, but a funny version for older, more sophisticated children. 

“You don’t eat pork, do you?” I asked, just to warm up.

“It’s haram.”

“Kirin!” Mummy called from the kitchen, and said something sharp in Bengali.  She had started doing that, eavesdropping on our lessons.

He rubbed his eyes, and said he was tired.  He had started doing that, whenever he had to read.

“I should give you a spanking,” I said, in a very low voice, and, with my hand, ruffled the top of his head.  It was noiseless.  “When you’re twenty-five, will you still be doing that?  Rubbing your eyes.  I won’t know what to do with you.”

He suddenly looked sad.

“What’s the matter?”’

He didn’t answer.

“What is it?”

“You won’t still be tutoring me then.”

“I could be.  You might do English at University.  Your mother might ring me, and say she needs an outstanding tutor.”

He still looked sad.  In fact, he looked worse.  Then I understood.

“You think I’ll be dead when you’re twenty-five?”

He nodded.

“I’m not that old!”  But I wanted to cheer him up.  “People die all the time.  I could die on the way home today, on the bus.”

“How can you die on the bus?”  I could see a flicker there.

“You can slip, or get thrown out,” I said.  It wasn’t convincing.  He gave me a proper smile.  He knew I was making it up.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The G-spot

I was covering a computer class, Year 9, somewhere in London.  A couple of the girls (there were boys, too), looked a bit flighty, like a cat with the wind in its tail, my grandma used to say.  They were sitting close together, and made a unit, the way girls do.  When one of them spoke, it was like a little chorus of what both were thinking.
“What’s the G-spot?” asked Kayleigh.  It wasn’t their topic that day.
“You’d better ask your science teacher that.”   
To be honest, I wasn’t sure, and they were in that kind of mood.   I sensed they knew as much as I did, or more, and were, at least partly, fooling around.
At that moment, the normal teacher came back to look for something.  Immediately, the same girl fired the same question at Miss, who wasn’t a science teacher, but who knew more than I did about the female body.  She stopped in front of the two girls, and answered with a matter-of-fact tone, with a school ma’am’s confidence that what she said was right, as if she was explaining how to save a document. 
The girls started squirming.  It was fun to watch.  For me, I mean, and perhaps for Miss, who must have noticed their embarrassment, but ignored it, rather idiotically, I thought, and went right on with her school ma’am voice.  About the G-spot, I didn’t know there was so much to say, when scientists weren’t sure, unless she just wanted to prolong the squirming.  She may have thought: ‘If you can ask a question, girlie, you can listen to the answer.’ 
Miss went out again.  I sat down on the chair behind her desk.  I needed to.  The room was very quiet.  Boys in far corners aren’t normally so engaged.  There was a printer on the desk in front of me.  Teachers printed on it from computers around the school.  Every now and then, a sheet would slide out magically, by itself, and drop into a metal tray right under my nose.  It was satisfying to look at. 
One sheet had the photo of a woman, naked; a girl, really, in her late teens; her whole body lying back, in black and white, on A4 paper.  I’m not sure what the boys intended when they sent it to me.  Filling in some gaps in the old boy’s knowledge?  Trying to arouse me?  Part of my job was protecting innocence, and here they were, corrupting me.  It was ignorant of them, though, not to hit the colour button.  And, if Miss was right, the G-spot wasn’t showing. 
The prettiest girl in the school was in that class.  I’m being subjective.  At any rate, the boys were lucky.  She was much loved.  But there were girls, too, as you know.  She was much loved, and also much despised.

“Where’s your family from?” I asked her. 

“I’m French-African,” she replied, with a flashing smile.

“French people are very elegant,” I said.  The best teachers improvise. 

Another girl glared at her, accusingly: “You’re blushing.”

It was true.  Her classmate’s face had gone a Haut-Brion Rouge.  She was only thirteen. 

“Oh, I’ve been blushing all day,” she managed.  I improvised again: “Your father must love you very much.”

“Yes, he does!”

A bit later, I was standing next to the other girl, the pretty one’s accuser, looking at some work on her computer screen.  She was also pretty, though not so much, and not at all French, but she delivered the most poignant insult I have ever heard: “You smell of pee, old man.”