The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Thursday, 8 December 2016

That’s typical Mummy

Kirin said Mummy gives him Year 8 Maths. He’s in Year 3, the little genius.

“I believe it,” I replied. She hasn’t mentioned it to me. I wouldn’t understand that sort of thing, the special algebra that flows between them.

It was Eid time again. Kirin showed me his presents. There’s always plenty of those. In religion, as in the mysteries of Math, Mummy is never sparing. This year, he got a cell phone and a watch.

“I don’t need to ask you the time anymore,” he yawned. “I’ve got two things to show me.”

In case he doesn’t get it the first time, I thought. It wasn’t fair on Mummy. She probably didn’t mean it that way. He also had new pyjamas, but they made him hot. She didn’t mean that, either. He hadn’t slept well. He said he’d told Mummy, but she hadn’t believed him.

He’d had a haircut, too. I thought: That’s typical Mummy. She gives with one hand and takes with the other. I’m a bit anti-Mummy at the moment.

“Wouldn’t you like long, golden hair?” I asked, in my most unctuous voice.


“I don’t believe you.”

There was homework for school. He had to do a comprehension about Arthur and the sword in the stone. The first question ran: ‘What time of year is it, and how do you know?’ I thought it was too easy. Worse than that, it was boring. They could have asked something else, surely; a more evocative question. For example: ‘How do you think he felt when the sword came out? Like a king?’ I didn’t wait for Kirin. I answered for him: “It says it was freezing, and it’s not freezing in summer, you idiot.”

It just came out, like a prompt blade. Kirin bolted. He got as far as the corridor, where his child-minder caught him, and sent him back.

“What happened?” I asked. He was hurt, disbelieving.

“You called me an idiot.”

“No, I didn’t. I was talking to the person who wrote the question. It’s too easy. You’re too clever. I never call my pupils idiots, even if they are. Only an idiot would think I called him an idiot.”

He looked at me. There’s one thing about Kirin. He has a sense of humour. He gets over things quickly, too. He doesn’t sulk, like me. I asked him to read the rest of the passage aloud. He reached the part where Arthur does his bit.

“The sword came out,” Kirin read, “like a knife through butter.”

“I knew it!” I called out. “I thought of the same image, ‘like a knife through butter,’ just before you read it.”

“But you didn’t say so.”

I regarded him.

“You’re very sceptical” – I pointed to his dictionary – “for a child.” One of his dictionaries. “Actually, they should have said butter at room temperature. Chilled wouldn’t work.”

“Or melted.”

“You mean they should have said it, or it wouldn’t work?”

It wasn’t revenge. I really wasn’t sure what he meant. When he didn’t answer, I went on.

“You’re right, I think. If the butter was melted, it wouldn’t work either. The knife would be on it, not inside it, and you could just pick it up. But why didn’t they say ‘like a knife through butter at room temperature?’”

He said he wasn’t sure.

“It sounds ugly. It spoils the rhythm, and you don’t need to say it. People know what you mean. That’s ugly as well, when you explain too much, like your old tutor.”

Kirin opened his mouth, but I got in first again.

“I know. I’m ugly too.”

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

You’ve had lots of practice in your long life

Last Saturday, when I arrived, Kirin wasn’t hiding beneath the table. He was on his chair, ready. I think he was even holding a pencil. There were printed sheets in front of him, a sample maths paper for the 11+. I know the school. It has one of the hardest exams.

“My mother said I have to do at least four pages.”

“OK. Let’s have a look.”

He might have managed the first three questions, which were all on page one, but there were over twenty altogether. There was no point in starting.

“I can see it’s too difficult. I’ve had lots of practice in my long life.”

I told him I’d explain to Mummy when she got home; he wouldn’t get into trouble. We then discussed ways to hoodwink her, like how to hide a toy car if she came in unexpectedly.

“See what you can do. You have thirty seconds. You wouldn’t have three if I was Mummy.”

He put the car on the table in front of him, and piled his books and papers across it. He tried to make the pile seem natural, but it just looked a mess. I said it wasn’t a good idea; Mummy didn’t like mess; she’d tell him to clean it up; and she’d wait there and watch while he did it. He’d already started tidying. He knew Mummy better than I did.

I suggested keeping the toy behind his giant pencil bag, and slipping it inside when she came in. There was enough room under the flap for a Belgian minibus, and the small fist which enclosed it. He smiled gently.

“What if she caught me with my hand inside?”

“It’s your pencil case. Bag,” I corrected. I went on. She couldn’t see through the flap, so she wouldn’t see the toy. If she caught him with his hand inside, he mustn’t pull it out too quickly. It would look guilty. He had every reason to put it there, in his own pencil bag, which Mummy herself had bought, the biggest and most expensive she could find.

“Just say: ‘Now, where’s that red pen?’ and peek beneath the flap. I’ll say: ‘Don’t worry. I don’t need it. I had a quick look. You haven’t made any mistakes.’”

Mummy would poke around for a minute, on the coffee table, at the bookshelf, then slip out quietly.

“Children lie badly,” I concluded. “Some adults do too. I’m a very good liar.”

“You’ve had lots of practice in your long life.”

Mummy still wasn’t home. It was pay day. She pays four weeks in advance. I think she's mad, but it saves her the bother, she said, of bringing cash every week.  Usually, if she's going out, she leaves the money in the bookcase, near my chair. Kirin calls it his cash machine. Today, the machine was empty. I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks. I thought she might have forgotten. I sent her a text. Kirin got up and stood at my shoulder.

“Don’t stand there. You’ll make me nervous. When I talk about money, I sound
grovelling or rude. I’ll show you later.”

Mummy replied immediately. She hadn’t forgotten. She’d be home soon.

It was true, about being home soon. When she came in, she repeated: “I hadn’t forgotten!” It wasn’t shrill, but she needed to stop saying it.

I mentioned the sample paper. I told her it was too hard. I didn’t mention her instruction to do four pages. She didn’t mention it either.

“I just wanted to give you an idea,” she explained, “of what the school required.”

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Sixty minutes of your life

When I arrive for Kirin’s lesson, and Mummy isn’t home, I may not see him at first. He’ll be underneath the table, hiding. He keeps me waiting a minute (he knows about suspense), then jumps out as if he’s going to bite me.

I think he has shark DNA. He can’t stop talking about them. He told me how a dozen sharks came through his bedroom ceiling, wearing jet packs. He’s very fond of hammerheads.

“Isn’t broom head more appropriate,” I said, “or vacuum-cleaner-fitting head? Show me your teeth.” He’s growing adult ones. “You look more like a shark than they do.”

He asked about Douglas, a boy I once tutored. They’re the same age. Like Kirin, Douglas hid when I arrived, but he wasn’t playing. He screamed when I rang the doorbell, crawled behind the sofa, and wouldn’t come out.

“Did you like him?”

“No. I like you better. He did hug me once when I was going.”

“So, he liked you.”

“He liked me when I was going.” 

I glanced around. The lesson was half over.

“You can have a comfort break.”

“I don’t need one.”

“I need a rest, so have one now.”

He went upstairs. Mummy had just got home.

“Kirin!” she called, when she heard him in the passage.

“He told me to go to the toilet,” Kirin said, a bit surprised at what he was saying.

Now and then, I let him play, for half a minute, while we’re sitting at the table. Today, however, he’d been playing non-stop. There was always something in his hand – a car, a ball, a jigsaw piece. He was exaggerating. In the end, I got cross. Kirin pointed out, sadly, “Sometimes, I don’t like it when you come.”

“You go on too long. I don’t like being cross. If I liked being cross, I would have been cross an hour ago. Mummy is paying a lot of money for this lesson, and we’re not doing any work. One day, I won’t come anymore. Nothing lasts forever.”

We looked at each other. I looked down. It was too late. I had said it. Kirin thought a moment.

“Something lasts forever.”

“Do question three.” A short silence, then I looked up, rather sheepishly: “What lasts forever?”


“I meant time. But you’re right. Most stars are so far away, the distance is measured in
years – how long it takes for their light to reach us. You know how fast light is.”

“You see the lightning before you hear the thunder.”

Kirin had been listening politely. But I knew what he was thinking: Nothing lasts forever.

We did some more questions. At the end of the lesson, his mother came in.

“I could hear you being naughty.” She meant Kirin.

“Near the end,” I said. “He was letting off steam,” I turned to Kirin. “You did get up and run around the room.”

He grinned. I said to Mummy: “He’s come a long way.”

“He said he wants to do an extra hour with you.”

We were doing two already. I turned to him again: “That’s sixty minutes of your life.”

He went solemn, then walked across to Mummy, and whispered in her ear. She didn’t answer, but spoke to me.

“Is he improving?”

“Yes. He wrote some excellent sentences today.”

Kirin ran for his book, found the page with his similes, and read them out, still grinning.

“The grass was as soft as green cotton wool.”

Mummy smirked.

“The lightning struck like dragon’s fire.”

She stopped smirking, but still didn’t speak. She's never short of words. She just prefers to think before she says them. Some, she avoids completely, like Well done or That’s fantastic! 

This time, she said, “You can do three hours.”

Thursday, 8 September 2016

You’re not perfect

Last Saturday, when I got to Kirin’s house, his child minder opened the door. It’s the term he uses when he refers to her. It’s a bit clinical, coming from a child. He doesn’t say nanny, much less her name. He lowers his voice too, even if she’s outside and can’t hear, as though he’d rather not refer to her at all, and his tone is cooler.

To tell the truth, the young woman is annoying. She’s hardly visible when Mummy’s home, but, as soon as Mummy leaves, she takes charge. She’s always poking around, like a little Mummy, saying bossy things, so we can’t relax. Still, when she opens the door, it means Mummy isn’t home. That’s a relief for everyone.

“Do beetles have blood?” Kirin asked. At first, I thought he didn’t know, but he was testing me. I said I wasn’t sure.

“They’ve got black blood,” he informed me. It hadn’t come up in Science. One lunchtime, he’d been playing with a friend. The two boys had found some large stones. They tried to hit a classroom window on the first floor, but their arms weren’t strong enough. (He didn’t say that.) When they missed the window, they found a beetle, and smashed that instead. It wasn’t quite so hard. (He didn’t say that, either.) To show off, I summed up the story thus far.

“So, you just happened to have rocks in your hands, and thought, ‘Oh, I wonder what a broken window looks like.’”

Kirin grinned.

“You couldn’t break the window, so you thought, ‘Oh, I wonder what colour blood beetles have.’”

He grinned again, but I hadn’t finished.

“Throughout the history of human existence, men have used science as an excuse for cruelty.”

Homework was an information leaflet. He had to use bullet points. I queried the term.

“Isn’t that a bit violent? At school, you aren’t allowed toy guns, but you have bullet points. Mention it to your teacher on Monday morning.”

Kirin grinned again. His bullets were just blobs, anyway.

“Let’s call them cockroach points. You can mention that, too.”

He grinned his biggest grin, and repeated in a loud voice, “Cockroach points!”

I popped a sweet in my mouth. It was lemon flavour: “For my throat,” I said. I offered one to Kirin. He sucked it manfully for a few seconds, then spat it in his palm, and, without a word, went upstairs. Children like sweets. I didn’t do it on purpose.

“Kirin!” called the child minder, from the kitchen. “What are you doing?”

When he sat down again, I screwed up my sweet wrapper, and threw it at him, aiming for his mouth. I missed. I held my hands up.

“It wasn’t me. It was the poltergeist.” I thought he wouldn’t know about those. But he
did, everything, from some computer game.

“Let’s face it,” I said. “Most of what you know comes from a machine. Spell poltergeist.” I’d have him there. When he got it wrong, I recited: “I before e, except after c.”

“There’s no c in poltergeist!”

“Just testing.”

At last, the lesson was over. The child minder came in, just like Mummy.

“He was very good today,” I said, as I say to Mummy.

“I could hear you being naughty,” she said, to Kirin, the way Mummy does.

“I said very good, not perfect. Even I’m not perfect. You may be perfect, of course.”

I wouldn’t say that to Mummy. Kirin was standing in front of her. He turned his little face up, and chanted: “You’re not perfect! You’re not perfect!”

He wouldn’t say that either, not to Mummy. We were being cheeky to the child minder, like children everywhere. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Intellectual naughtiness

Mummy says that Kirin doesn’t listen. He doesn’t concentrate. She’s told us more than once. We need reminding.

“He’s better than he used to be,” she said, at the end of one lesson. I looked at her. She was being positive. “He wasn’t happy with his teacher at school. She used to shout at him. He didn’t want to go to school at all. He wouldn’t get up in the morning. I was desperate. That’s when I rang your agency.”

I thought: She must be very pleased with me. I’ve saved her son’s education. She just can’t say so directly. Nice and impersonal – that’s how Mummy likes it. She mentioned the 11+ exam. She wanted me to start preparing Kirin. Now that he’d agreed to be educated, this boy in Year 3, she was planning out his life in secondary school.

“The 11+ doesn’t follow the school syllabus,” I said. “It’s much harder.”

It’s also for ten or eleven-year-olds. Kirin is only eight. I told her the books to buy, for ages 8-9. She said she’d order them on the internet. Next week, when I came in, a parcel of books was on the table, waiting. She opened it in front of me.

“I don’t know if they’re the right ones,” she said, a touch indifferently.

They weren’t the right ones. They were for ages 10-11. It was written clearly on the cover. I wondered if she’d done it on purpose, or simply not concentrated. Either way, Mummy hadn’t listened. I wanted to tell her; I wanted to very badly, but I didn’t. Certainly, no one shouted at her.

Mummy worked it out a long time ago, the power of books: the more Kirin read, and the harder they were, the more intelligent he would be. She bought a whole series of paperbacks with pastel-shaded covers. He showed them to me quite proudly. He claimed he was reading them, and had finished the yellow one already. It looked unopened. I think he was just fond of the colour. I picked it up.

            “You say you’ve read it. What’s the seventh word on page ten?”

“That’s not fair!”

He began fiddling, and asked the time.

“You can’t wait to get rid of me?”

“I want you to go, and I don’t.”

Mummy also bought some mental tests, designed for year 6. We’re working through them. Each test has twenty questions. Kirin gets the first fifteen right, then starts to make mistakes; he puts his head on the table, and rubs his eyes.

“You weren’t really listening,” I said, in one test.

“I was. I just misheard.”

“Most teachers call that not listening.”

He reached for another book.

“That’s odd,” I said. “When boys fiddle in my lesson, it’s usually with a car or a ball, not a book. Your naughtiness is intellectual.”

He was doing Ancient Egypt at school. Mummy had bought two encyclopaedias and a pile of books on the subject. He’d reached for one of these, about King Tut, the nine-year-old who executed adults. The boy-king had twelve tutors, wise men with long beards and white robes. He could throw them to the crocodiles whenever he liked (there was a tank beside the temple), so he often had fewer than twelve.

“Just think of it,” I said, “a tank of crocodiles in your back garden.”

Kirin looked out through the window.

“How long have we got now?”

I was sick of that question.

“Fifteen minutes,” I said. “Yay!” adding a couple of fist pumps with my right arm. His face clouded over, but it takes more than that to make him cry.

Friday, 8 July 2016

I’m a big deaf one

“Have a comfort break,” I said to Kirin. The lesson had just started. 

“Why do you need a comfort break?” 

            It was Mummy’s voice, straightaway, from the passage. She walked in suspiciously.

“He needs some water,” I replied.

“Are you eating chocolate?” she asked.

“He’s got some biscuits,” I replied. “He was hungry.”

When I mentioned the comfort break, I didn’t think Mummy could hear, but she has sharp ears. I had used the term ironically. Perhaps she’d heard that, too. After she came in, Kirin had not spoken. I realised I was answering for him. Defending Kirin, I was, in fact, defending myself. It was something else that Mummy might notice.

“Make sure you listen!” she said. With Mummy, it’s all questions and commands. She went out, and we relaxed.

“You should listen to Mummy,” I told him. “She can uncover all forms of naughtiness, instantly.”

Kirin was wearing a new T-shirt. It had I’m a big deal #1on the front. I studied it, then said, as if I was reading aloud: “I’m a big deaf one.”

He chuckled, then pointed at the sofa. A chocolate Easter egg was sitting in the middle, by itself, like a jewel on a cushion, the silver wrapping holed at one end.

“I wouldn’t keep it there,” I said. “The mice’ll get it. Small creatures never stop eating.”

He dropped some Polos on the floor.

Leave them,” I said when he bent down. “The baby mice can play with them. They can squeeze through the holes.”

“We don’t have baby mice.”

“Yes, you do. You just haven’t seen them. They come out at night, and they’re very small, like you. They have small brains. Like you. I have a big brain.”

For his school homework, Kirin had to make some sentences with words that ended in -less. He was, for once, very focused. He put his arm around his work, as if he was cuddling it, to hide what he was writing. When he was ready, he pushed his book over, casually, for me to read.

My tutor is heartless.
My tutor’s life is meaningless.
I know what ‘endless’ means.

It was a long lesson.

“These are excellent sentences,” I said. But he was bored already.

“What’s the time now?” he asked.

“Sh. Mummy’ll hear.”

“She’s on the phone.”

When you’re being good, Mummy’s always on the phone, so she doesn’t know. When you’re being bad, she’s always listening.”

She has, of course, banned all toys from the lesson, but he smuggles them in. A while ago, we thought up a way to talk about them which she wouldn’t understand. Instead of car, we say three-letter word. For ball, four-letter word won’t do. We’ve made it three-and-half.

“Can I have that three-letter word?” I say, in a loud voice, when I’ve had enough of his Batmobile, and nobody gets into trouble.

There was another exercise. He had to guess the words with missing letters. Each time, three consonants were given, in the right order. It was difficult – for me, anyway. One of them I couldn’t do at all. The consonants were m, p and t.

“Armpit!” cried Kirin. He produced a toy car. I couldn’t say no.

At the end of the lesson, Mummy came in as usual. Kirin’s face was shining. He told her he’d got armpit before I did.

“He said it’s his favourite word!”

It was true. I’d said that. Mummy smirked. I’d noticed it lately, now and then, the strange shadow of mirth on her jaw.

“I may have exaggerated.”

She smirked again.