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.