The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 8 December 2017

What a fool

Crazy-lady, Kirin’s child-minder, has gone. When I press the bell, a new lady comes to the door.

“Do you like her?” I asked.

“No. She’s too old.”

“Old people are best.”

I call her Ancient-lady. You never know. She mightn’t interfere, or spy on us, like Mummy, or Crazy-lady when Mummy wasn’t there. I gave him a few tips on innocence, or not looking guilty; how to sit still, for instance, and not call out, so ladies wouldn’t be suspicious. As for Ancient-lady, I’d assert myself before she settled in and felt more important than me, as she would very soon, if she didn’t already.

There’s a sofa near our table. It’s excellent for spying. Ancient-Lady saw it, like everyone. The first time she sat there, I asked her not to. She got up, went out, and hasn’t used it since.

“I like her already,” I said. “You might too, one day. Did you like Crazy-lady at the start?”

“No.”

“Did you like me?”

I remember our first lesson. He asked for the toilet three times – in one hour. I told Mummy afterwards. She was annoyed, with me.

“You can’t stop someone going to the toilet!”

Good old Mummy. She defends him when she shouldn’t, and rebukes him when she doesn’t need to. There are mothers like that, who criticise their child non-stop, but object when someone else tries to. She expects him to sit with me for three hours straight. She’d want a break, wouldn’t she, for herself? For her son, she’s never bothered. He’s still playful, and wants to trick her. I just remind him – when he sneaks into the kitchen, for example – not to steal too many sweets at a time. She might notice. She might be counting. You know Mummy.

His father is suspicious too; or step-father. At the end of one lesson, he stood over Kirin, and said in a cold voice: “Have you done your homework?”

They don’t seem to like him very much. They do see his earning potential. The more he studies, the more he’ll earn. It’s obvious. To avoid work, Kirin pretends. He said he hurt his finger.

“He may recover when I go,” I joked. He mentioned the doctor. Mummy smirked. She meant: What a fool! To judge him, she uses adult standards, but when she gives him an instruction, she expects the obedience of a child.

          She’s not so stern with herself. She was trying to change a light bulb, behind us, above the sofa. It wasn’t going well.

            “Shit!” I heard. Kirin did too.

“Pardon my French,” he said, with a smile. He’s only eight. I thought: He’s better behaved than she is. What if he said “Shit!” and she heard?

Ancient-lady didn’t last long. There’s a new lady. We had to choose a name, something with an A sound to go with lady, and a mocking edge. Kirin was stuck, so I picked for him. At first, I wouldn’t tell. It was rude, I said. Of course, he begged me.

“Anal-lady. It’s a science word.”

I needed to explain a little more. The name was perfect: the assonance, the elision, the nastiness. On the other hand, it wasn’t child-friendly. He knew it was wrong. I confessed, “I don’t think Mummy would like it.”

“She wouldn’t like Crazy-lady.”

Mummy is getting more suspicious. She isn’t home much. When she is, she sits in the kitchen, watching. I think we’re meant to fear her. Once, when he left his chair, she shot this at me: “Does he often do that?”

I could hear her thinking. The next week, she wasn’t in London. She had left in the morning, Kirin said, and was coming back on Sunday. She’s done it twice, now. She doesn’t tell him where she goes. She doesn’t have to. The first time, I saw a webcam on the floor, plugged in the wall.

“It’s something to do with her office,” Kirin said.

The second time, I saw the webcam again, along with two others, covering our table and each exit.

“It’s so Mummy knows what I’m doing,” he admitted, sadly. “She can see me on her phone.”

Perhaps she never watches; she sets it up to scare him. Either way, he doesn’t like it. The absences, the secrecy, the spying – does she work for MI5? She can do what she wants. One day, Kirin will too. She’d offended us so often. Still, with the webcams, she surprised me. It out-Mummied Mummy.

I nudged a camera with my foot, so it faced away. The green light was on. It occurred to me, as my shoe poked forward, that she might be watching. Too bad. You can watch yourself. Kirin turned a camera to the wall. He had followed my example, like a good pupil. I forgot to tell him, if she asked, to say I did it. She might sack me, but she might, anyway.

Conspirators, we went on learning. At school, in English, he was doing imagery. His teacher said a metaphor was a weak simile. I said it wasn’t.

“Even if it was, does that mean anything to an eight-year-old?”

He thought for a second, then smiled ironically, and shook his head. We’d been doing metaphors.

“Can you think of an example?” I asked. He grinned, and repeated one of mine, for sunset. I say ‘mine.’

“The orange ball sank into the ocean.”

I added a new cliché: “And left not a ripple behind.”

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Tickle the boxes

The Easter break was here. Mother said they were going away. I suggested she write down the date of the next lesson. She’d forgotten over Christmas. I didn’t tell her that, but I thought it might happen again.

“I won’t forget,” she said.

She didn’t, either. She remembered enough to cancel. We had no lessons for the whole of April. When I finally saw Monica again, it felt awkward. Her exams were starting. Next week might be the last lesson.

At the end, she got up, on the sixtieth minute exactly. We had always finished late.

“Don’t go yet!”

But she'd gone already. She was in the doorway, pulling faces.

Next lesson, when I arrived, she was in bed, asleep. She’d had her first exam, English comprehension. She came down at last. It was a Monica I didn’t know, a grumpy one. She never quite woke up.

Afterwards, her mother asked: “Are you coming next week?”

She was checking Daddy’s schedule. Usually, we had three lessons, then missed one. The next, on the 15th, would be the third for May.

“Yes,” I replied. “There are always more exams. I’m a secondary teacher. Secondary.”

Next lesson, there was no car in the drive. It wasn’t a good sign. Auntie opened the door. The house felt empty. Five minutes later, Mother came in, wearing a dressing gown.

“I’m sorry. I was asleep. Monica is out with her Dad.”

Could Auntie not have told me? Another five minutes. There was a noise at the front door. Monica walked in. She was well-dressed, like a young lady, with boots and jacket. She was reserved, too; a young lady who’d been out with Daddy. Was Auntie going to slap her? That’s what she said the last time Monica was late.

They’d been shopping. Monica frowned: “I didn’t get everything I wanted. We had to come back for your lesson.”

Her exams were over.

“Did you tickle the boxes?” I asked.

She smiled. In Arithmetic, she’d missed four questions. Two pages were stuck together. She hadn’t noticed till it was too late.

“You would have got it all right. Did you cry?”

“No.” Still her best word. “I was upset, though.”

“I’m just happy I’m here.”

“It’s our last lesson today.” I looked at her. “I asked Daddy in the car. He said, ‘Probably.’”

“You said that before. I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true this time.”

Her voice was different. It might be true. It might be our last lesson. I said, just in case, “I’ll be sad.”

I was sad every lesson, at the end. She waved her travel pass. It’s laminated, like a credit card, with her photo and date of birth, I wanted to see it. She dropped it in front of me, out of reach. She did it several times. I had to try and get it. Toss the Travel Pass, our new game; the last, probably, if this was the last lesson.

“It always falls face down. I was doing it at school.”

She dropped it again. It bounced over. I could have reached. She held it up for me. She told me what was under her thumb: her date of birth. I could see the photo. It didn’t look like Monica. I asked her when her birthday was: October 15th this time.

“I’m eleven already.”

The last fib. The lesson was almost done. I wanted to end it myself, before she ran out. She likes it when I imitate her parents. Knowing she’d smile, and I’d feel clever, I came up with this.

“When Daddy sacks me, I’ll say, ‘I’ll think of Monica on her birthday, October 15th.’ He’ll say” – in Daddy’s deep voice – “‘October 15th? No, August 2nd.’”

Sunday, 8 October 2017

I’m ringing Daddy!

Mother put her head around the door. She’d overheard something.

“Did Monica say there’s no money?”

“No,” I replied. “I was talking about Daddy. I saw him on the street.”

The week before, Mother hadn’t paid the right money. She’d forgotten again. She owed me eight pounds. The next day, I dropped in to get it. Still no money.

“Her father’s coming,” she said. “He’ll pay you.”

She didn’t know when exactly. I walked to the bus stop again, without the same money. I felt stupid. While I was waiting, a car pulled up. Daddy got out, hand in pocket. The car crept forward. I pointed. I thought there was no one in it. Then I realised. Once again, I felt stupid.

“Shall I pay for two lessons?”  He held a roll of notes in the air. “When are you coming next?”

“In two weeks.”

He paused, then shut his fingers round the notes, and put them back in his wallet. It didn’t make me feel any brighter.

Monica had her own anecdote. She giggled when she told me. She was with a friend, outside a supermarket. A homeless man had asked them for money. The friend’s mother offered to buy him food. He said he wanted Macdonald’s.

“In a way, it’s funny,” I said. I talked a bit, and finished: “It could have been me if there’s no money.”

Monica asked me for past exam papers. Auntie had told her to.

“Not to do with you,” she explained. “To go through with Auntie.”

It’s my teaching material, I thought. If Auntie’s going to tutor, she can get her own. But she’d blame Monica if I didn’t bring something. I said I would, then realised: Auntie, the past papers – I won’t be needed anymore. Too late. I’d promised. Next time, I gave her a paper.

“You brought it!” she cried. She hadn't trusted me, or she’d forgotten. It was an old Maths test, the first few questions – the easy ones. It hadn’t printed well.

“I need a colour cartridge,” I said, “but I don’t want to buy one.”

“Skin-flint!”

Say that to Auntie. Mother put her head around the door; she was popping out to the cash machine. She’d forgotten my money again. Monica grinned. Auntie was upstairs. The lamp was too, the one Daddy bought for our lesson. Auntie had it now. Soon, she’d have the questions. When Mummy left, I stood up: “I’m ringing Daddy!”

Monica started miming. She gesticulated, sitting next to me, and jumped about, which meant banging chairs. She’d never been cuter – or noisier.

“Sh!” I said. “Auntie will hear!”

She stopped suddenly, and said in a measured voice, without looking at me, “It’s your last lesson next week. You’re getting sacked.” She glanced across to see what I’d do, then looked down. “You’ll have no more money.”

“I don’t believe you. They wouldn’t tell you now.”

“I overheard them talking.”

I sensed a fib. Her parents weren’t good at “next week”; they didn’t plan ahead, not with her education. They’d forgotten the 11+. They’d forgotten me ten times over. Still, the exams would happen whether they remembered or not. Summer would come. Why have a tutor? They’d think that, sooner or later. Next year, Monica would be in secondary school. I’d helped her in primary. I belonged to the past already.

“Look.” I put a finger to my eye. “There’s a tear.”

If there was, she didn’t see it. She kept her face down, studying her book, like a good girl. The sentences she’d spoken – they were too easy. She was fibbing. I was almost certain.

“You’ll learn lots of things at secondary school – how to manipulate boys, twist them around your little finger” – I smiled – “the way you do with me.”  

Missed the tear, missed the smile. They mightn’t have existed. She took pity on me.

“It’s not your last lesson.”

Friday, 8 September 2017

I’m going to slap her

Last time, when I arrived at Monica’s, her mother saw us standing in the passage.

“Put a jumper on, and socks,” she said. The child was slightly bare, but she always is – at six o’clock on Monday, anyway. Her mother hadn’t said it before. She doesn’t usually see us together. If she’s about, the daughter disappears.

Monica. I’ve started calling her child, partly to remind me, as she’s looking older, and partly to annoy her. We converse in adult fashion. We tell each other things, “man to man.” It’s just the sort of phrase which annoys her.

“Are zebras white with black stripes,” she asked, “or black with white stripes?”

“I’ve no idea, child.”

I told her an anecdote. I was on a crowded bus. I said excuse me to a lady. “You should say, ‘Excuse me, please,’” she replied. Nowadays, I’m rarely surprised. I looked at her. She wasn’t even old. “‘Excuse me’ is enough for most people. All right. Excuse me, please, with cherries on top.” She said something rude. “That was rude,” I said. “Someone got out of bed the wrong side.” She said something ruder. “That was even ruder,” I said. I thought she was going to burst. I added – to Monica, not the lady: “You know how annoying I can be.”

Monica had listened politely, but she didn’t look impressed. Sometimes, I make her laugh. I heard a man say “Bisquits!” in the supermarket. He was in the dairy aisle, talking to himself, as if he’d just remembered.

“Bisquits!” Monica repeated, with a giggle.

I told her about Bizz, in Year 4. His family is Nigerian, like hers. I asked him if Bizz was short for something that he didn’t want me to know. He nodded gravely, I couldn’t help guessing.

“Bizzopolis?” He looked at me. “Bizz-pants-on-fire?”

I expected Monica to laugh, but she doesn’t play with names, except her teachers’.

“That’s not funny,” she said.

“Bizz didn’t think so either.”

One lesson, she wasn’t there. That surprised me. She’d never been late before. She was at a friend’s house, Auntie explained. Someone was driving her home.

“I told her to be back on time. I’m going to slap her.”

She said it in a cold voice, as if she meant it. We sat and waited, with the TV on. No Monica. Auntie repeated, “I’m going to slap her.” She may have said it to impress me, to show me she could deal with children. Perhaps she didn’t mean it; she wouldn’t slap Monica at all. But I didn’t like it. I said, “She’s just a child. She’s not responsible for what the adults do.”

Auntie didn’t reply. She sat there, squinting at the new idea. We kept an eye on the street. Eventually, a car pulled up. It was like a tank in size. Monica got out. She looked small – her thin body – next to all the metal. Auntie went to get her. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she was still cross. They had to pay for the hour, and it was almost half over.

I asked Monica if she’d been with Fizi. She wouldn’t say. She didn’t look happy. She was in trouble – not with me; she knew that. I found the sheet she’d torn in half, the one where she’d written her birthday. I showed it to her, to cheer her up or something.

“It’s Fizi’s birthday, not mine.”

“I don’t believe you.” Pause. “Auntie said she’s going to slap you. I defended you. I said you weren’t responsible for what the adults did.”

She sat there in silence, a bit like Auntie.

I didn’t stop at the normal time. I went on teaching sad Monica for almost half an hour. I hoped Auntie would notice. I didn’t see her at the end. Monica, as usual, brought the money. Next lesson, when we were by ourselves, I asked: “Did she slap you?”

She shook her head, but you know Monica. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

I still love you; a bit less, maybe

“A dog bit me in the face when I was little.”

Monica was chatting. It’s not all true, of course. I watch her to see if she’s blinking. She taught me that. She told me she blinks when she lies, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t watching when she said it, and even then, I wouldn’t know the truth.

“Did you go to hospital?”

“No.”

“Do you have a scar?” 

“No.”

“Are you fibbing?”

“No.”

Pause.

“I sometimes forget you’re a child. Have you ever been bullied?”

“Yes. A boy was mean to me at school. He was mean to everyone. He had to leave.”

“What did he do, bite your face?” Grave silence. “I just bullied you.”

Her right eye was shinier than usual. I leaned closer.

“Is that a tear?”

It was, a true tear, somewhere in her eye. She hadn’t released it, that’s all. She smiled. You can hide a tear, a scar, but I didn’t know a little girl could do it, then smile.

I ask too many questions. I try not to. I pretend I know; that I’ve mastered everything, like a good teacher. A while ago, I asked a teenager why she hadn’t sacked me. She didn’t answer, but her father stopped the lessons two weeks later. With Monica, I say annoying things, like: “I know all about Year 6s.” She’ll be cross, but she won’t sack me.

I told her about a boy I’d tutored for the 11+. We did an hour a week. His mother stared at us the whole lesson. In twelve months, his level went up two years. His mother still wasn’t happy. When she showed me his school report, she wailed: “A year of tuition, and this is all he got!”

“She was thinking about the money.”

“Why didn’t you stop going?” asked Monica.

“I was thinking about the money. I went on so long they had to sack me. I hope he failed.”

“I’m going to ring Daddy right now, and tell him!” Pause. “My mother doesn’t spy on
us.”

“She does. She looks at your book. This is her.”

I took a page by the top corner, as Mother does, turned it suspiciously, like a dirty ear, and looked underneath.

“I told her, ‘It may not seem very much, but we’ve worked hard.’”

Monica gazed at me. I saw amusement, wonder, wickedness – the perfect mixture in a girl’s eyes.

“You need to write more. She might sack me.”

Monica smiled, and put her pen down.

“That’s not very clever.” Pause. “Who’s the cleverest child in your class?”

“A boy. He was dumb at first. Then he got a tutor. Her name’s Mirabelle. She tutors eight people in my class. She gets very good results. She’s older than you.”

“She must be very old.”

“She’s more dedicated.”

“Dead-icated.”

“You’re jealous.”

“Yes.”

Mirabelle – that’s a good one. As for the boy: “Ask him what rotund means.” I’d just taught her.

“He won’t know.”

“He will. Is he fat?”

“No.”

“So, it doesn’t matter. You can call him rotund because he isn’t – when your teacher’s not around.”

“She won’t understand.”

“She will, even if she’s dumb.”

“She won’t.”

“Don’t do it, though – don’t be cruel, even if nobody understands. You understand.”

At school, she remembered rotund. She asked the cleverest boy what it meant.

“He said, ‘Fat and round.’”

“Is he handsome?” She didn’t reply. “I’m going to make you into a young lady, someone who doesn’t spit or pick her nose.”

“I don’t really want a tutor.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

“You do.”

“I don’t.”

Pause.

“I still love you; a bit less, maybe.”

“You don’t.”

“Is this an ‘opposites’ day?” Pause. “You’re right. I don’t love you less.” Pause. “You’ll have lots of boyfriends in secondary school.”

“I won’t.”

“You’ll go out to milk bars and movies.”

“I won’t.”

After all the teasing, she was still calm, still certain. Still beautiful. I once wrote: This child is worth more than her adults. She’s worth more than me.