“I won’t tell her things anymore,” replied Faris. He understood embarrassment. He showed me the back of his hand. There was a pattern on it, drawn with henna. In London, mehndi is popular with Asian girls. I’d never seen it on a boy before. He looked sad.
“Auntie did it for me. My friends laughed when they saw it.”
Auntie was still staying. She’d smiled when we first met. The second time, she offered me her hand, and left it in mine for a while. She was a young woman. Afterwards, I said to Faris: “I get goose bumps when people speak French,”
We continued working.
“Your auntie likes me,” I said. “I could marry her, and we could live here together in the spare room. I could give you lessons every day.”
“Oh, no!” he cried. Then, “You shouldn’t say things like that. You’re married already!”
“If I wasn’t married, I mean.”
He was wearing a bright, woollen jumper.
“My mother made it. Her boyfriend has one the same.”
“Could she make one for me? Auntie might like it.”
His parents were separated. He showed me a photograph, a recent one, taken at a theme park with his father. They were sitting in a giant teacup or something, with another boy and his father, wearing Algerian football shirts, looking at the camera. There was a woman, too. I hadn’t spotted her at first. Her face was turned away. Faris said he didn’t know her. I don’t think he wanted to, either. The photograph was framed, and stood on a shelf near his bed.
Faris asked about my wife, if I had a picture of her. His last question was: “Is it a happy house?”
During the second hour, he went for a toilet break. When he came back, he was walking very slowly, as if something terrible had happened.
“My father died. My mother just told me,” he said, and stood with his head bowed, as a boy might do if he was stricken with grief.
“He did not,” I replied. I was used to his little stories, sorting the real sadness from the false.
“A friend believed me once, when I told him.”
We did a comprehension. A carriage was crossing the moors with a young girl inside. It was night time, and she couldn’t see anything. She felt anxious. In the last question, Faris had to continue where the extract left off. He produced a gunshot in the far distance – his phrase – killing both horses. A single gunshot. I pointed out that, from a far distance, a single shot was unlikely to kill one horse, let alone two. You’d have to line the heads up together, like a selfie, and hold the barrel next to them.
“That’s violent!” Faris said, but he looked as though I’d called him stupid.
“No more violent than a distant gun shot, just more believable.”
“Lining the heads up is worse!”
Sometimes, the heads align themselves. He’d been at the swimming pool, and met two twelve-year-old girls. While they were splashing around, one of the girls pointed at the other, and said to Faris, “She likes you.” When he was going, she mouthed the words: Call me, and raised a thumb and finger to her cheek, like an actress on the telephone.
“I’m going to see them again next week,” Faris said.
“Are they pretty?”
“Sh! My mother might hear.”
“Do you like girls?”
“Thingummies. Is that your first romantic experience?”
“Stop! That’s why I never tell people things.”
“I won’t do it again.”
That was the lesson, then, full of sex and violence, and embarrassment. The following week, I asked about the thingummies. He had lost interest.
“The first time, they were in the water. I just saw their heads.”
He didn’t go on.
“Were they fat?”
He hadn’t wanted to say it.