The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

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.