“I’m having ice cream after.”
Her class teacher hadn’t set any homework. I gave a comprehension, the town mouse and the country mouse. Two little creatures – all they talked about was food. When the half-hour was up, she went to get her ice cream. It was a chocolate-covered bar on a stick. She wanted to eat it beside me while I taught Lyan, but his chair was in the way. She couldn’t squeeze past, and he wouldn’t move. She was about to crawl under the table, holding the ice cream.
“Give it to me,” I said. “You might drop it.” She was doubtful. “I promise I won’t eat it.”
“Don’t let Lyan have it!”
She passed it to me, then got down on her hands and knees. I studied the treasure I was holding. Lyan chanted.
“You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie. You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie. You should never lie, Graham. You should never lie.”
A little voice rose. It seemed a long way off.
“I can’t do it!”
Sweetie backed out from under the table. The ice cream was starting to drip.
“Filsan, get a plate,” said Lyan. He didn’t call her Sweetie. She looked at the ice cream, then at me. I nodded. She was gone a while.
“I’ll hold it,” Lyan offered.
I nearly passed it to him – I really did – but I remembered.
“I promised Sweetie.”
She finally returned.
“I couldn’t reach the plates,” she explained.
Lyan let her pass. There wasn’t much space. She held her hands above her head, clutching the plate. An elbow quivered. She couldn’t bend her arm. It was paralysed. I hadn’t known. Meanwhile, ice cream was running down my fingers. Lyan noticed too.
“Filsan, get a spoon.”
He was deadpan. She had just squeezed past him with great trouble. She hesitated, only a second. It was too long for the ice cream. It slipped off the stick, over my knuckles and onto the carpet. I’d seen girls cry, lots of them, but not Sweetie. She had come to sit with me. The ice cream had too, in a way. They simply couldn’t do it together. It was a lesson in itself, a cruel one: irony. I was there with my tutor stuff; I witnessed the lesson, though I didn’t teach it, not to a seven-year-old. Lyan wasn’t happy. He missed out on the treat. Auntie wasn’t happy. It stained the carpet. Still, when the last smear had vanished, the ice cream didn’t matter anymore to anyone but Sweetie – and me; I was the main reason she lost it.
When I was leaving, she watched me tie my laces. She had stopped crying, but she was miserable.
“I’m going swimming tomorrow. I might drown.”
“You might. You’ll be careful, though, won’t you?”
A hug, our second. There wasn’t a third. It was the last time I saw her. She didn’t drown. I heard her voice a week later. Four words. When I knocked, no one answered. It was pouring with rain. There was no shelter. I knocked again.
“There it is again!”
A little voice, a long way off. Lyan opened the door. His mother was on the sofa. It surprised me. She was never in. No Sweetie, though I’d heard her voice, and no money. Mother said so. She was ill and couldn’t make it to the cash machine. If I taught Lyan today, she’d pay me next lesson.
“I should be all right then.”
The day arrived. I knocked as usual, but Auntie blocked the passage. She hadn’t done that before. Mother was sick, she said. I couldn’t do the lesson. The door to the living room was shut. It had always been open. I pictured Lyan’s mother on the sofa. She was there – I could feel it – her face stiff with anger. Illness made her cross, apparently.
Lyan walked down the stairs, holding the money for the unpaid lesson.
“Mother is at the clinic.”