The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 8 July 2017

I love you more than money

Monica’s exam was coming. The great 11+. It was probably our last lesson. Daddy hadn’t told me. I hadn’t asked. In fact, I didn’t want to know, not beforehand, before our last lesson.

“A thousand girls do the test for that school every year.” I was talking to Monica. “Less than a hundred get in.”

“You sound as if you expect me to fail.”

“I don’t. You’re good enough to go. If you don’t pass, I’ll still think you’re clever.”

I told her a story about a girl I’d tutored, for the same test, for the same school. The girl’s mother was confident. The first time I went, she smiled knowingly, brought her hand up near her cheek, and said: “She’s very clever.” At the word very, she squeezed her thumb and forefinger together, as if to pin the knowledge in my mind.

“Did she pass?” inquired Monica. She likes to hear about my students, especially the ones her own age.

“She came equal 800th.

At the end of the lesson, as usual, Monica went to get the money. As she passed the sofa, she cartwheeled onto it, and stayed there, upside down, with her feet against the wall. That wasn’t usual. She was facing me. She was just upside down. I could see her belly button. I thought: She doesn’t want me to go.

We kept on talking. I said, “I haven’t got change.”

“Liar.”

When they pay me, it’s always in notes. I try to bring change. Today, I didn’t have any, and I couldn’t pay it back next lesson, not if this was the last.

“I love you more than money,” I said, as if explaining something.

“No, you don’t.”

“It might be our last lesson,” I said, although she knew already. “You have to beg Daddy to let me come. I can prepare you for your Sats exams. Tell him.”

“No.”

“Do you remember our first lesson? I saw your photo on the mantelpiece, and asked who that pretty girl was. You said it was your twin sister. Do you remember?”

She didn’t speak. I think she nodded, but it’s hard to nod when you’re standing on your head. She’d gone solemn, too, or I thought she had. She was upside down.

“You used to wave through the window when I was going. Do you remember?”

Again, no answer. I got paid. For once, they had the right money. On the footpath, I turned my head, looking for Monica at the window. I thought she might do it, be there one more time, because it was the last, but I didn’t see her. I walked on, three steps, then turned my head again, one more time. I still didn’t see her. She might be there, I thought, behind the curtain. But I didn’t
feel it.

The day before Monica’s exam, I sent a text to Daddy, wishing good luck. At the end, I added, as I used to, “See you Monday,” though I meant Monica – I didn’t see much of Daddy – and, this time, I didn’t much believe it. A text came back a minute later, from Lagos, or London, or Dubai. It was two letters long.

“OK.”

There are letters like that, rich as silence.

On Monday, when I got to Monica's, I found her in the passage, where it turns the corner into the dining room. The lights were off. She was standing alone, in the semi-darkness.

“Did you do the test?” I said, in a searching voice, but softly, so the adults wouldn’t hear.

“No.”

Good old Monica.

“They didn’t register you in time.”

I said it simply, never doubting, as you tell someone what you had for lunch, or how old you are.

She just smiled.