The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

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.

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