The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Monday, 8 February 2016

How sweet

Faris is in Year 6. I prepared him for a month or two, before Christmas, for his 11+, an entrance exam for secondary school. His mother said he was good at Maths. I was helping him with English.

The first time we met, I got him to write a paragraph. He left every second line blank. I wasn’t sure why. Space for corrections, perhaps – thoughtful child – or to make his work seem longer. I’ve worked it out now, of course.

“How sweet!” I said. Again, I’m not sure why.

“It’s not sweet!”

He was turning eleven, and objected to sweet, quite naturally – sweetly, in fact. He wasn't being rude, not in the first lesson. He didn’t know me well enough. It was, all the same, his first act of defiance.

There were other sweet things. In his room, where we had the lessons, he kept a stash of food. Drinks from Algeria in strange-looking bottles, lolly-coloured water without any fizz, or none that I could see through the cloudy glass. Grandma brought them when she came to stay. There were fruit gums as well, from a local shop, and cakes from Paris, thanks to Auntie, who was also staying – I don’t know where they all slept – half a dozen delicate things, wrapped individually, the cakes, and the people, too. They were a gentle family.

Like everybody else, Faris was unflinching in the search for pleasure. He kept his goodies by his desk in a big, plastic box. He didn’t get up to open it. He just reached over. It had a lid that made an intelligent sound. I’m full of sweet things! it said when it snapped open, and Stay away! when it snapped shut. His stash wasn’t exactly a secret. It couldn’t have been. But he liked to pretend it was.

Each lesson lasted two hours, but he usually stopped trying after one.

“How many push-ups can you do?” It was my question. It was that time of lesson. He jumped up, and did a few, but hardly bent his elbows. I told him to jog to the window, do five push-ups, jog back again, and do five more, then go back to the window. He did what I suggested, but somehow finished up beside me.

“You got it wrong,” I said. “You need to make three trips, and end up at the window, so I can relax over here.” I drew the three journeys in the air, with a finger like the sword of Zorro. “You have to do it again.”

His room had a wooden floor, so I added, “Don’t tread so loudly this time. Your mother can hear.”

He grinned, and did it all again, just as noisily, but waited at the window, and looked at me. It was another sweet thing. When I let him back, he showed me a certificate he’d got, with his name in Arabic. Then he opened his wardrobe.

“This is my Eid suit,” he said, and held it up. It was plain and black, and very small. It looked like the costume for a giant toy.

Before the end of the lesson, his mother came in. She knocked first – the power of the
closed door, even when it belongs to you.

“I’m always on the phone,” she explained. “I didn’t say hallo properly.”

It was true. When I arrived, she was chatting to someone. Now, she said what she had really come to say: “Is he being good?”

She said it doubtfully. He must have been naughty at home. I leaned back, and said, “Two hours is a long time.”