The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Have you met Ken Livingstone?

Lyan had a rickety front gate. It was also very low. To open it, you had to bend down, and then a hinge squeaked loudly. He would have heard it from the house, if he was in. Each time I went, I thought to myself: Why knock? They know I’m here. But I knocked all the same. On my first visit, the curtain moved. A face appeared, then withdrew, and the curtain fell back. Lyan opened the door and said straightaway, without a greeting, “Have you met Ken Livingstone?”

He wasn’t joking. When he asked, I didn’t understand, but it must have been my clothes. On the walk from the station, every week, I only saw one tie. In Lyan’s view, I looked like an old mayor of London or, at least, someone smart enough to meet him.

“Take your shoes off, Graham.”

On my left lay a staircase to the upper floor. At the bottom, there was a mass of footwear, like a thick pool, as if it had washed down and settled. The house, small already, was silting up with shoes. I wondered how many people lived there.

Lyan went through a door into the living room. I found him on the sofa having dinner and watching television, the Mecca prayer channel. His family was north African. He needed help, his mother said, in maths and English. She wasn’t home yet. I sat with Lyan. When he’d eaten, he put his bowl on the floor.

“I want to go to university, Graham.”

He was the right age, eighteen or so. He had the temperament, too. He was very serious. We did a maths example. He used his fingers, grabbing each one in his fist and chanting.

“18 add 6. 18 add 1, 19; add 2, 20; add 3, 21; add 4, 22; add 5, 23; add 6, 24. 18 add 6 is 24!”

Lyan turned to me. He wasn’t checking. He was proud of himself. He leaned back and, for a minute or so, stared at the wall. It was a long while in the middle of maths. The shirt flaps parted on his belly. If this happened, and it did quite a lot, you could see his rolls of flesh. When he came to, he began chanting again, forcefully.

“I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed! I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed! I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed!”

A little girl entered with a bowl of food. This was Filsan, Lyan’s cousin. Like him, she didn’t say hallo. Little girls don’t have to. She crossed her legs on the carpet, facing the television, with her back to us. There were green pieces in the bowl, but I couldn’t tell what they were.

“What have you got in that big bowl?”

“Pizza.”

“With brussels sprouts.”

“No!”

She said it in a deep voice, like a groan. Lyan leaned back and sneezed. A giant sneeze. He didn’t cover his nose. Spray filled the air above the table, glinted for a second, then sank in a pretty mist on my question sheet, on his writing pad, on his big, bare belly. When the air cleared, he coughed in my face.

The lesson finished. Auntie gave me the money. Lyan padded after me to the front door, with Filsan behind him. He chanted once more, a single line, quietly: “I’m going to succeed in life, Graham. I’m going to succeed!”

Filsan smiled, then peered at me, her eyes shining.

“He’s a lion!”

Sunday, 8 July 2018

I’m going to get you sacked


It was the final lesson, though I didn’t know. Nunu did. She made a mess in her book, the deluxe tome her mother had bought, meaning to inspire her. It inspired her, all right. A whole page was covered in scribble, great, jagged lines. Nunu had succeeded at last, done her best and got it all right. It was perfect scribble. She looked pleased. She’d expressed an opinion. What’s more, she’d done it in front of me.

“The rabbit did that,” I said, then set some maths questions. She got the first one wrong. “Don’t worry.” I consoled. “If girls knew everything, I wouldn’t have a job.” There was a note of irony. She would have heard it. “You don’t even know my name.” She didn’t speak. “It’s all right. I’m not proud. You can call me Greg.”

“Graham,” she corrected, kindly. It was the last lesson.

“I know teenagers who haven’t heard of Pompeii. One boy I teach – he’s in Year 9 – didn’t know what toffee was.” Pause. “If you can’t do a question, just go on to the next one.”

Nunu smiled, then went on answering. For the first time in weeks, she looked keen; she worked fast. She wasn’t reading the questions. She put a dash for every answer. At the end – it didn’t take long – she threw her pen down like a victor’s sword: “I can’t do any of them!”

“That was silly.”

“I don’t care.”

“The lesson’s finished. Now you’ve answered those questions, we’ll have to correct them. I was going to do something else next week.”

“You won’t be here next week. I’m going to get you sacked.”

“It’s not a good idea. You won’t get more free time. Your mother will just find another tutor.”

“I won’t have any tutor.”

“Yes, you will, someone who’s professional and mean and won’t let you do what you want – as I do,” I added, in case she’d forgotten. “There’s always another tutor.” Pause. “I’m not resigning. Good luck, though.”

Three days later, I got a call from mother. When I didn’t answer, she left a message. She asked me to call her back. She didn’t explain, but it sounded serious, like a funeral. In a way, it was. I called back.

“Sorry I missed you.”

“Your phone was on. It was ringing.”
I sensed a reprimand. I wondered if she was cross. Mothers can be.
“It was on silent.”
“I wanted to have some discussions.” An odd phrase. Her voice was odd too. “I’m deciding the best way to move ahead.” It wasn’t a real discussion. She didn’t want my opinion. Like Nunu, she’d made up her mind already. But she sacked me gently. Nunu didn’t do that. “I think I’ll tutor her myself.”

It’s what mothers say when their child rejects a tutor – me, anyway. It’s happened more than once. Nunu’s mother didn’t know. These were her first ‘discussions.’ She meant well. When she hired me, she was doing her best for Nunu. When she sacked me, gently, she was doing her best for me. I felt sorry for her.

My last memory of Nunu. The lesson was over. We were at the door. I was outside, looking back. She stood behind her mother, jumping up so I could see her, putting out her tongue and smiling, twitching her nose, with her hands on her head, like ears. 

Outside, looking back. I found a piece of paper in my bag, the other day, when I wasn’t thinking about Nunu. It was a recycled sheet, a photocopy, which I’d put there for the lesson, for Xs and Os or other scribble, so she wouldn’t spoil her book, and mother wouldn’t know. At the end, I’d take the sheet with me. I did too, but we never got to use it. There was no scribble, just a poem on the other side. Nunu didn’t do that. Still, the sheet had meaning, the sort of thing that makes a tutor sad. Not this time, not this tutor. I threw it away. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Their left leg, too

Each week, on Tuesday, I caught the train to Nunu’s. From the station, you turn left, then left again. You can almost see her house, at the end of the road, in a block of terraces. She lives by the railway line, in a new neighbourhood, wasteland till recently.  It’s not far, just a few minutes' walk, but the road peters out. There’s a dirt track and not much lighting. I haven’t been for a while. They may have fixed it. Whatever it’s like, you have to keep walking if you want to get to Nunu’s.

The first time I went, it was cold and wet. There were puddles I couldn’t see. It depressed me. Worse, the streets were so new, they weren’t on the map. I had to find her before I called her Nunu. The track wound along, with the railway on the left and a line of back fences on the right. The houses faced away, pointedly, as if they didn’t like trains. Where the road finished, and the track began, you could see the back of Nunu’s, but you couldn’t get in. There was no gate, no opening in the fence. Cracks need time. You had to walk all the way around.

Once, she’d watched for me. After that, every week, as I walked along, I pictured her at the window, behind the curtain. She’d see me in a moment, when I turned the corner. I pictured her now. It was almost the last time. I didn’t know, but I felt miserable, like the first lesson. It wasn’t raining. It was a premonition.

When I walked in, she was reading as usual, or pretending to, but she didn’t look up. She even held the book differently. It was Alice in Wonderland, read angrily. It’s possible. I saw her do it.

“You’re not sick of me already?” I said. “It’s a world record!” Silence. “You’ve been on that page a long time.” Her clothes were different too. The tight top was gone. She wore a loose jumper. “I know girls who’d give their right leg to sit with me for an hour. Their left leg, too.”

She choked a giggle, recovered, then went on pretending to read. After the giggle, she was even angrier. The rabbit was at it too, chewing furiously. They made a good pair.

Somehow, the lesson started. Nunu had a pen in her mouth. I saw some wetness.

“That’s girl slime,” I said. “I’d scream if you touched me with that.”

She tapped it on my arm.

“Did you fart?” she enquired.

“It was the rabbit.” Her pet was beside the table. I could only see its ears, poking through the top of the cage. “I don’t know which way it’s facing. I can’t go on. I need to make sure it’s listening.”

She stuck her tongue out. At the same time, a thought hopped through my head: The
rabbit’s replacing me.

“I remember our first lesson,” I said. “I thought you were mean and horrible.” Nunu looked at me. “Then I thought you were sweet. I told your mother. Now you’re mean and horrible again.”

She’d done her homework, the last half-decent one. It was comprehension. She read out her answers. The first began: ‘In my opinion, I think–”

“Wait.”

The two phrases, I explained, meant the same thing, like saying: It’s a very warm, hot day. Nunu sulked; she said her mother had told her what to write.  In my opinion, I think. It wasn’t so bad. I was having my revenge on Nunu for the times I’d asked and got no opinion at all.

 At the end of the lesson, she hurried out. I mentioned the phrases to mother – better get in first, before Nunu. Mother mightn’t like being wrong.

“She said you told her what to write. If she was five, I wouldn’t have bothered. At that age, Mummy’s always right. But she’s not five. She’s sitting the 11+. I have to tell the truth.”

“I didn’t tell her to write it.”

“You did, you did!” cried Nunu, shrill and tragic, from the next room.

The cage is open. The rabbit’s there, twitching its nose. You look away and back – it’s not where you thought it was.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

I know girls who’d give their right leg

A week later, at six o’clock as usual, I arrived at Nunu’s. I rang the bell. I’m on time, I thought. Nunu’s waiting; she’ll be at the table, pretending to read, trying not to look excited.
I peeped through the window. No sign of Nunu. If she was waiting for me, it wasn’t at the table. She’s playing a trick, I thought. She’ll jump out when I walk in. Girls had done that. I rang the bell. The door opened, and I walked in. Still no Nunu. She was upstairs, mother said; her cousins were staying.
After a minute, three children came down: Nunu, another girl and a boy. The cousins were a bit younger than Nunu, but she looked much older. She was wearing her tight top. It had never looked tighter. They sat down at the table, as if they were all part of the lesson.
“I’ll need an extra £5 for each cousin,” I said.
“I’ve got it,” the boy replied, seriously, putting his hand in his pocket. He was smart. He’d make a good pupil. But he was joking, He didn’t want to sit there and he didn’t have to. In fact, he wasn’t allowed. It was Nunu’s lesson. He could have some fun, though, unlike Nunu – she had to learn. At the moment, she sat in silence, eyeing the younger children, more like an aunt than a cousin. She was apprehensive. They might say something stupid. When she said something stupid, it didn’t matter. She didn’t notice.
The cousins went upstairs.

“Are you coming next week?” Nunu asked. It was the half-term holiday, a whole week off school and, perhaps, the tutor. I didn’t answer at once. I watched her, as if I wasn’t sure what she meant, as if a girl might want her tutor in the half-term holiday. After the pause, I said this.

“Two weeks is such a long time.”
“It’s a short time for me.”

“I know girls who’d give their right leg to sit with me for an hour.” Silence. “Deep down, you want me to come.”

“Deep down, I don’t!”

She sneezed. She had a cold, she explained. She’d caught it in PE. I asked a few questions. Her class had been out in bad weather. Her arms and legs were bare, as they were now.

“It was freezing!” she moaned. “We were just standing round.”

The lesson finished. Mother came in to pay, as she always did. I mentioned Nunu’s cold. I even described how she got it. Mother looked surprised. She knew about the cold. I didn’t need to tell her. I didn’t need to know in the first place. I was paid to teach Nunu, to help her learn, and there I was, learning about Nunu. It had nothing to do with exams. It was personal. What else had we talked about? Words, like sneezes, come from nothing, but people listen. So did mother. She stared at Nunu, at me, at Nunu again, then put it all together, as it seemed to her, and said to Nunu, quite cleverly, I thought: “You don’t wear enough clothes.”

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Nunu in Wonderland

The following week, I rang the bell and peered through the window. Nunu was sitting at the table, reading a book. When I came in, she looked up sweetly and smiled.

“You’re ready,” I said. “How did you know I was coming?”

A slight pause.

“I was looking through the window.”

She said it a bit shyly, like a girl admitting what she didn’t want to. If I knew she’d been looking, I’d think she was keen to see me. Worse still, she had tried to hide her keenness by sitting down before I came in. I’d think that, too. How did you know I was coming? There could only be one answer. I knew it already, before I asked. Nunu understood, then told the truth. There was no point in lying. If she did, she wouldn’t just look keen; she’d look stupid.

She had a new pet, a white rabbit. It was in its place, like Nunu; a different place, that’s all. There was a cage beside the table.

“The rabbit’s a reward,” explained mother, beaming at her daughter. “I’m proud of her. She’s doing so well in your lesson.”

A plump thing (the rabbit, I mean), it had a general cuteness, like little girls before you get to know them. The cage was designed for the active rabbit; It was nice enough, as cages go, but it lacked something. Freedom. If you asked Rabbit (I don’t know its name or gender), it wouldn’t want to be there, like Nunu in our first lesson. But you don’t ask rabbits their opinion. Let's call it Freedom; Freddy, for short.

When Freddy stood up, his pointy ears stuck through the wire. I felt sorry for him. There were droppings on the base of the cage. It's not ideal, living like that, next to a pile of crap. In cartoons, rabbits don’t crap. But this was a real rabbit. Being real has its own perks – if you're a rabbit. You don’t have to listen or read or give answers; do a whole pile of crap.

Something else was different. Nunu had a cap, a sporty one.

“Are you going to model it for me?”

She got up, took five steps across the carpet, then returned, wiggling her hips on the way, like a proper model. At least, she tried. It was more like a girl pony. She passed back and forth three times, in front of me. At the end of each pass, she stopped and tugged her cap in my direction. Then she sat down again on the chair beside me. She deserved a break. I started talking.
“A boy gave me a lock of hair.” Nunu giggled. “He cut it off one lesson and wrapped it in a piece of paper. I’ve still got it.”
“I’ll give you a staple.”
She had a stapler set, small and pretty, the sort of thing little girls like.
“It might hurt,” I replied.
“I’ll give it to you, silly. I won’t staple.”

I glanced across and down (she was ten, remember; she was short). She shut her eyes, pushed her chin up and puckered her lips for a kiss, a big one, by the look of it. I stared at the little face; her little mouth, a perfect circle reaching up at me. I didn’t move. A few moments, and she opened her eyes. When she saw me, she sighed – more a groan, really – kissed her fingertips, then placed them on my cheek, very gently.

The lesson continued. I produced a new sheet, a clean one, if you like.

“Where’s the one we were doing?” asked Nunu.

“It was nearly finished. You saw the answers, anyway.”

The air went flat. We’d had fun with that sheet. Now it was gone, the fun was too. She was disappointed.

“You look like a teenager,” I said. “Now you’re acting like one.”

“I’m bored.”

“If a girl I was teaching ever said that again, I’d have to resign.”

“I’m bored.”

At the end of the hour, mother came in. Like an expert, Nunu lifted Freddy and nuzzled her face on his. Her lips touched him. She was very earnest. She was also chewing gum. This time, I couldn’t resist.

“Are you chewing the rabbit’s ear?”

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Nunu

Mother rang me before the next lesson. She was worried. Her daughter refused to write. Writing is part of the 11+. She’d bought a notebook, she said, for homework essays. She thought her daughter would write them. Perhaps the girl liked me or seemed to. I offered to set a question on the phone. Mother said no; she wanted me to do it face to face. If teacher said: “Write!” a girl would have to.

The notebook had a hard cover, with hundreds of pages – quality A4, thick and shiny. It would last a long time and hold lots of writing. Best of all, it would impress her daughter. The writing would be quality too.

When I arrived, I gave an extract from The Secret Garden. The child read for a moment.

“I know this!”

She’d seen a film version, then borrowed the book from her school library. It was upstairs. She asked if she could get it. When she returned, she held it out proudly. I began to like her.

“You need a pet name,” I said. Her name had four syllablesNu was the second. “I’m going to call you Nunu.”

“No, you’re not. People call me Femi or (a name I don’t recall).”

“In the first lesson, you said you didn’t have a pet name. You lied.” Her face soured, like the first lesson. “It’s either Sweetie or Nunu. Which do you like better?”

“Nunu,” she said, quickly. I'd picked the right moment. She wasn’t cross. She may have been pleased. I had bothered about her, and the pet name was clever, or I thought it was. She relaxed. She even burped.

“Have you been watching boy cartoons?”

No answer. She didn’t look like a boy. As if to prove it, she had worn a tight top. She hadn’t done that before. She eyed the extract I’d given. It was a comprehension. There were several pages. She discovered the answer sheet at the end. I reached for it. She wrestled it away. She hadn’t done that, either.

“You shouldn’t have stapled the answers at the back.” Her first criticism. “It’s not professional."

I won’t say her real name. She wouldn’t like it, considering what I have to tell you.

asked her to write a book review. I said I wanted her opinion; she shouldn’t just retell the story. She chose a book about ponies. There’s a cartoon series on TV. That’s why she had the book. They’re girl ponies, mainly; of school age, who visit libraries and fly. They know magic. Without it, how could a pony turn pages? They read and write, but they don’t have to do the 11+. One is a princess with a long-winded name, like a royal family. Nunu showed me a portrait on her phone, repeating the name aloud, adoring each syllable. She wanted to be the princess, and the pony. As for boy ponies, they exist – you can’t ignore them completely – but you don’t have to like them. In the cartoon, as in life, they’re plodders and bullies.

I’d got to know her better. I liked the enthusiasm for pink ponies. All the same, it didn’t square with the tight top. I asked about her birthday.

“It’s in November. You can give me a present.”

“A hug and a kiss.”

“That’s your opinion.”

She never read The Secret Garden. It was an audiobook, for a start. There were no annoying pages. Even then, she returned it to the library. I asked why.

“It was boring.”

She did review the ponies for homework, in her new notebook. It was the only decent homework she wrote, though she gave no opinion; she just retold the story. Nonetheless, mother was delighted. Nunu had shown an interest in books, if only two, one which she didn’t have to read and one which was full of pictures.

Not everything is magic, with pink ponies. I shouldn’t have called her Nunu. I looked it up the other day in the slang dictionary.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Before Nunu

I didn’t call her Nunu straightaway. It took a few lessons. We got on pretty well, pretty soon  for an hour or two, before the rupture. But more of that later.

She was ten years old. I tutored her for the 11+, the entrance exam for secondary school; the so-called ‘best’ schools. Mothers are keen on these. I have pupils every year. They normally fail. I don’t tell mothers that.

When I first arrived, the child looked ill. She was fine, really. It was seeing me. She stared at this strange man, one she’d have to sit with for an hour – worse, one who’d tell her what to do, and make her read and write. Think of it: a whole hour, when a single minute is unbearable.

We sat at the kitchen table. I  had photocopies, verbal reasoning. Her answers were slow, in hard-fought syllables. She wasn’t rude, exactly, not in words – in bits of words, in silence. The questions were multiple choice. Some choices had been circled already. Another girl had done it and kept doing it when I asked her not to. I talked about her now as if I didn’t like her. I thought it might please the new girl. She didn’t flicker. I tried again. Did she have a pet name? No. It was hard to believe. Girls with long names get short ones, cute things, like the girls. It’s fine till they’ve grown up or think they have. But Nunu’s voice was cold. If she had a pet name, she wasn’t confiding it to me.

I referred to “mummy.” I don’t remember why. It slipped out, then sounded wrong.

“Do you want me to say mummy or mother?

“Mother,” she said, immediately. It was her quickest answer. No one could have answered any quicker. Names are important.

The lesson was about to end. We had time for one more question. I turned the page. There was a line on the next sheet, in blue pen.

“It’s that girl!” I cried, as if I’d just noticed, though it had been there for years. She smiled at last – the girl who would be Nunu – not at me, at the page, but a smile is a smile. I said: “You’re the best girl ever.”

The hour finished. She stood up brightly and left the room. Her mother appeared.

“I think you told her a little fib,” she ventured. “She said you told her she's the best girl ever."

“I did. Teachers tend to lie, but there was a reason. I had a pupil once who wrote on my sheet and wouldn’t stop even when I told her. Your daughter wouldn’t do that.”

“No, she wouldn’t.”

“She’s very sweet.”

“Yes, she is.”

I was lying, of course. She wasn’t sweet at all; she didn’t want to be and, from what I’d seen, she got what she wanted.

For the first two lessons, the table we sat at was glass. You could see through it. Then a new one took its place, made of wood.

"What happened to your old table?"

“My uncle took it."

“I prefer it. I could see what your feet were up to.”

She had large feet. She’ll grow into them, I thought, like hand-me-downs or a new tutor. For the moment, though, she didn’t react. I was after another smile. I tried again. She had pens in different colours. She chose the pink one to write with.

“Don’t waste that on me,” I said. “I know it’s a girl’s favourite colour.”

“I hate pink!” she answered, as if that explained why she'd picked it. I laughed. She was pleased. She had made me do something. She almost smiled.

“Let’s play Xs and Os,” she suggested.

“I call it noughts and crosses. Why are girls always different?” She drew a grid in her book. “Your mother’ll be suspicious.” She ripped the page out. At the end of the game, she screwed it up and threw it in the bin.

“Your mother might see it.”

“She won’t look in the bin!”

“Some mothers do.”

I got up, like a mother searching in a bin. When I sat down, she drew a line across my sheet.