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. 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?”
“With brussels sprouts.”
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!”