The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The pink pen set

Monica is ten. I’ve been tutoring her for over a year. It’s a long time. Parents normally give up, or the child does. I remember our first lesson. Monica says she doesn’t; but she likes to say no, and everything she tells me isn’t true.

She was doing the 11+. Daddy asked me to come once a fortnight to help her prepare. He suggested the dining room table, but the light was poor. He said he’d buy a reading lamp. In the meantime, we could use the sitting room. There’s a huge TV screen on the wall. It was blank then, when I walked in, but it hadn’t been off for long. I could hear its slight, private, cooling clicks. The screen, dark and shiny, still glowed. Monica glowed too, but she always does. I relaxed on the armchair in front of the screen. The seat was warm. Monica had been sitting on it. There are secrets like that, which you learn without trying, and without being told.

As soon as Daddy went out, Monica sniffed. She did it several times. I found myself waiting for the next sniff. When one didn’t come, I said, gently, “Sniff,” but she wouldn’t. She didn’t say no. She just didn’t sniff.

“Have you had a tutor before?”

“Yes, but he didn’t know anything. Daddy told him not to come anymore.”

Below the TV screen, there’s a mantelpiece with a few photos. I saw a small girl with a jovial old man. He had a red costume, and a long beard that was so white it didn’t seem real. The girl looked thrilled. She may have been sitting on his knee. I’ll check next time, if I have the chance.

“I see you took a photo before you sacked him. He was very hairy.”

In another snap, Monica was by herself.

“Who’s that pretty girl?” I asked.

“It’s my twin sister.”

I believed her. It was the first lesson. It was her first fib, too. When she saw I believed her, she confessed.

“I believed you!” I whined. “You shouldn’t be able to trick me. You’re the child, and I’m the teacher.” Pause. “Are you sure you won’t sniff? Otherwise, I won’t hear you. Either you’ll be better next time, or I’ll get sacked, and I won’t come.”

Once again, she didn’t say no. (It was the first lesson.) She just didn’t sniff. She was right, in a way. Children aren’t meant to sniff. Teachers don’t like it. They don’t like being coughed on, either, or farted at, or clung to by nose-pickers. But it still happens.

We must have done some work. I just can’t remember what it was. Monica sat on a big cushion, with a side table to write on. She had a new pen set, a pink one, the sort of thing a child has for a new tutor. It was so new, she hadn’t even opened the packet. There was an eraser, a short ruler, a biro and two pencils. She recalls this part of the lesson. She dismantled the pen (it was one you press at the end), then couldn’t put it back together. I found the spring on the carpet.

“Are you going to sniff for me now?”

She looked across, quite solemnly, but didn’t answer

“I found your spring.” Pause. “Are you going to?”

“I just did.”

“I didn’t hear you. Do it again.”

I heard her this time. It doesn’t take much to please me. I wasn’t so sure about Daddy. When he came in, we showed him the remnants of the pen. It was all there, just in the wrong order.

“I found the spring,” I said, “but we left it for you. I didn’t want to waste time.”

Daddy smiled and nodded.

“I won’t be in next lesson,” he said. They’re Nigerian, originally. He does business overseas, and has to travel. “My partner will be here. I’ll introduce her to you.”

He called out. A lady came in, smiling shyly, like a child. She faced me without speaking, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, waiting for a chance to escape.