The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 8 April 2017


Monica, lesson three. I pressed the doorbell. I always do it twice, as if it makes an answer more likely. It’s not a normal bell, just a metal rod which grates noisily. After all the times I’ve rung it, it still surprises me, a bit like Monica, though she makes a different noise, and I don’t press her.

The curtain swept aside, and there she was, in the window frame: a live picture. I’ve told her more than once, “I know what you’ll look like when you’re sixteen.” She doesn’t mind, until I add, “You’ll need a good tutor.”

When I walked in, her mother paid me, for two lessons, the one she'd missed and the current one – too quickly, I thought, as if to prove something. Her brothers were on the staircase, at the top and bottom.

“I’ll eat you later,” I said, to the bottom one. Monica was jumping up and down.

“Fizi’s upstairs.”

As in fizzy.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Technically, it’s true.”

“‘Technically’? Do I say that?”

“No, I do.”

“It’s a big word for a little girl.”

As if to show the little, she did a cartwheel on the dining room floor. Her feet just missed the light.

“Careful,” I said. “If you break that, I mightn’t get paid.”

I mightn’t get paid anyway.

Another cartwheel.

“I saw your tummy!”

In the middle of the lesson, I asked: “What do you think is more important to me, you or money?”

She thought for a moment, then answered with a firm voice: “Money.”

I nodded.

“Can I call you Moneyca?”


She had an old notebook with her. I tried to look inside, but she wouldn’t let me. It was personal, she said. She’d been feeling sad, and written about it, back in Year 3. A short silence.

“I need a pen. I’ve got one upstairs.”

She stood up, opened a drawer, put her notebook in, then closed the drawer again, decisively (she didn’t have a key), and left the room. The air went heavy. I could feel a girl waiting outside, but I couldn’t see her. I tiptoed to the drawer. She gave me just enough time, then stepped back into the room. When she saw me at the drawer, she screamed, one of those spine-chilling squeals from horror films. They’re not exaggerated. She smiled. No one came to check.

“I knew you were there,” I said. “I wouldn’t have touched it.”

She went upstairs, and came back without a pen.

“You just went to see Fizi, your imaginary friend.”

“She’s not imaginary. I couldn’t find my pen.”

I gave her mine. She let me read the notebook. After that, we did some scrambled words. Amphibian came up. I stressed the ‘fib’ part. It was true, though, about Fizi. On a pretext, she came downstairs, another sweet Nigerian child, a year younger than Monica.

“I know all about you,” I said.

Monica pointed to an empty chair. I looked at Fizi.

“I wish you could stay, but you can’t.”

At the end of the lesson, Monica held out my pen.

“Technically, it’s mine, but you can keep it. Moneyca.”

She put a finger on her lips, and looked up, mournfully. There was disappointment, too.

At the end, she slipped the pen in my bag. When I’d said to keep it, she hadn’t quite believed me, or it wasn’t quite the right thing to do. I placed it on the table.

“You can give it back next week.”

But she'd moved on already.

“Look, I can do the splits.”

“No, you can’t.”

Fizi was in the sitting room, watching TV. I peeped in.

“Can you do the splits? Monica can’t.”

“No, but I’m double-jointed.”

She tucked her ankles behind her head.

“Wow. I can’t even cross my legs.”

I walked down the road, thinking about knotted bodies and the eight-year-old who wrote when she was sad.