I’ve had my final lesson with Kirin. Mummy hasn’t told me. It’s only Tuesday. She cancels on a Thursday. She sends a text that starts Hi Graham, like a friend, but doesn’t put her name at the end. This time – the last one – she doesn’t have to tell me. I’ve worked it out myself.
Two weeks ago, she wasn’t home. She’d forgotten to leave the payment. When the lesson finished, she still hadn’t arrived. She texted the child minder to say she was coming. She didn’t say when. I waited for ten minutes, then phoned her. She was sorry; could I wait? She didn’t say how long. I was late for my next lesson already.
“If you’d told me earlier…,” I said, and left.
The next week, she wasn’t in either. She had left the money in the bookshelf, Kirin’s ‘cash machine.’ I picked it up. It didn’t feel right. She always paid four weeks in advance. Now, there was only enough for two, up to, and including, the present week.
“Is Mummy stopping our lesson?” I asked.
A short silence.
“I don’t think I’m meant to tell you this. She said she’s cancelling the tuition. She said I wasn’t doing any work.”
“Would you have let me go without telling me?” No answer. It wasn’t a fair question for a child. “Did you ask her to stop the lesson?” This was even worse. It was stupid. It didn’t deserve an answer.
“At least we can say goodbye.”
“You’ll have less money.”
It was my own fault. If I’d waited that day, when she was late, she would have paid for four weeks. She wouldn’t have cancelled. I’d held my tongue for more than two years; then, for two seconds, let go: If you’d told me earlier…. I said it quietly, without irritation. But I’d corrected her. It’s worth the sack with Mummy. She was right. He wasn’t doing enough work, but he never was, nor ever would be, in her opinion. She was blaming him for her own mistakes.
“He must be sad,” another parent told me when I mentioned our three-hour lesson. Kirin mentioned it too, a few weeks ago. He asked me if we could do an hour less. I didn’t answer. Mummy might have cancelled the lot. That’s what I told myself. I was right, probably, but it was the money talking. I was no better than her.
Kirin is often sad. I once said, as a joke, that we’d be having tuition when he was twenty. He nearly cried. He thought I’d be dead then. Now, he had just turned nine. I wouldn’t even reach his tenth birthday.
“Did you get lots of presents?”
No reply. I tried again.
“We had some fun. Remember our crazy sentences?”
No reply. There weren’t a lot of answers that day.
“I wish Mummy would let you come, not as a tutor.” Silence. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
“She might forget to cancel, or change her mind. I might convince her.”
I shook my head. The money on the shelf had spoken. The money always had. But I shook too firmly. He was only nine. There were tears in his eyes.
“Can I have a comfort break?” he whispered. For once, he needed one. I needed one myself. I’d wondered, off and on, how I’d feel when the lessons ended. I was finding out now.
Words don’t always work. We did a page of non-verbal questions. I’m not so good at those. I made a mistake.
“I couldn’t see the line,” I said, truthfully. “My eyes.”
Old age, then. It’s not all true. Kirin, for example, poet in Bengali: it’s not his real name. Would Mummy call him that? I looked at the wall. There were some photos in expensive frames: a boy, twelve months or so, dressed up, with a grin I knew. Three photos, one beneath the other, all more or less the same. Mummy had overdone it before he could even talk.
For years, across the table, they had grinned like that, the boy in the photographs, the boy in my lesson. The final day was here. Only the photos were grinning. Nothing lasts forever. I’d said it once, when I was angry, a long time ago. The words came back now, as words tend to, in a cruel way, when you’re not expecting. There was one more question. There always had been. Three pairs of words; he had to choose the closest in meaning: come/go, depart/leave, last/ever. He ticked the wrong box – you know which – then put his pencil down, picked up his phone (like him, it was full of games), and made a hybrid monster.
The lesson was over. I hadn’t checked the time. I glanced up. The child minder was moving in the kitchen. She’d been upstairs the whole lesson. Three, long hours. She wanted me gone. Kirin – I’ll still call him that – stood in front of me. I hugged him and said softly, so she wouldn’t hear: “I won’t forget you.”
It didn’t make much difference to Kirin. He left the room. I walked to the front door. When I reached the passage, I looked along it, as I often had, one last time, to see what he was up to. He was turned to the wall, in the shadows at the end. It’s the last image. I thought: This will haunt me. It was haunting me already, before I touched the door.