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.