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.