The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Tickle the boxes

The Easter break was here. Mother said they were going away. I suggested she write down the date of the next lesson. She’d forgotten over Christmas. I didn’t tell her that, but I thought it might happen again.

“I won’t forget,” she said.

She didn’t, either. She remembered enough to cancel. We had no lessons for the whole of April. When I finally saw Monica again, it felt awkward. Her exams were starting. Next week might be the last lesson.

At the end, she got up, on the sixtieth minute exactly. We had always finished late.

“Don’t go yet!”

But she'd gone already. She was in the doorway, pulling faces.

Next lesson, when I arrived, she was in bed, asleep. She’d had her first exam, English comprehension. She came down at last. It was a Monica I didn’t know, a grumpy one. She never quite woke up.

Afterwards, her mother asked: “Are you coming next week?”

She was checking Daddy’s schedule. Usually, we had three lessons, then missed one. The next, on the 15th, would be the third for May.

“Yes,” I replied. “There are always more exams. I’m a secondary teacher. Secondary.”

Next lesson, there was no car in the drive. It wasn’t a good sign. Auntie opened the door. The house felt empty. Five minutes later, Mother came in, wearing a dressing gown.

“I’m sorry. I was asleep. Monica is out with her Dad.”

Could Auntie not have told me? Another five minutes. There was a noise at the front door. Monica walked in. She was well-dressed, like a young lady, with boots and jacket. She was reserved, too; a young lady who’d been out with Daddy. Was Auntie going to slap her? That’s what she said the last time Monica was late.

They’d been shopping. Monica frowned: “I didn’t get everything I wanted. We had to come back for your lesson.”

Her exams were over.

“Did you tickle the boxes?” I asked.

She smiled. In Arithmetic, she’d missed four questions. Two pages were stuck together. She hadn’t noticed till it was too late.

“You would have got it all right. Did you cry?”

“No.” Still her best word. “I was upset, though.”

“I’m just happy I’m here.”

“It’s our last lesson today.” I looked at her. “I asked Daddy in the car. He said, ‘Probably.’”

“You said that before. I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true this time.”

Her voice was different. It might be true. It might be our last lesson. I said, just in case, “I’ll be sad.”

I was sad every lesson, at the end. She waved her travel pass. It’s laminated, like a credit card, with her photo and date of birth, I wanted to see it. She dropped it in front of me, out of reach. She did it several times. I had to try and get it. Toss the Travel Pass, our new game; the last, probably, if this was the last lesson.

“It always falls face down. I was doing it at school.”

She dropped it again. It bounced over. I could have reached. She held it up for me. She told me what was under her thumb: her date of birth. I could see the photo. It didn’t look like Monica. I asked her when her birthday was: October 15th this time.

“I’m eleven already.”

The last fib. The lesson was almost done. I wanted to end it myself, before she ran out. She likes it when I imitate her parents. Knowing she’d smile, and I’d feel clever, I came up with this.

“When Daddy sacks me, I’ll say, ‘I’ll think of Monica on her birthday, October 15th.’ He’ll say” – in Daddy’s deep voice – “‘October 15th? No, August 2nd.’”