The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 8 December 2019

The sideways heart (revised)


One lunchtime, Varahna the piranha came to visit. I didn’t call her that, though someone did, not a child, either; a member of staff. It was in the yard. The lady hugged her and gave her a kiss. You aren’t meant to, are you – call children names and kiss them? Not in primary school. Not in any school. But Varahna didn’t mind. She stood for a moment, giddy from the hug or the kiss, then grinned. She was a sweet girl.

I hadn’t seen her for a while. She came looking for me. I was alone in Year 5, eating a sandwich. She was alone too.

“You taught us about a rat.”

I did. It was actually a bilby, but it looked like a rat. We called it Bob the bilby. It wasn’t in the lesson plan. I was pleased that she remembered. As we chatted, Varahna drew pictures on the whiteboard with the teacher’s black pen. A Year 5 girl came in to get something. She’d been in once already.

“Varahna, are you still here? Stop bugging sir!”

Then she went out. After a few minutes, Varahna pulled off her headscarf, shook her hair and told me to feel it. She didn’t put the scarf on again. When she left, she was holding it in her hand. I got to the door first and placed my arm across it.

“Password!”

She hesitated, then ducked under – she wasn’t very tall – and scurried off giggling. At the end of lunch, when the children were lining up outside, some Year 5 girls ran over to me. They were breathless.

“Varahna said, ‘I want to kiss Mr Spaid and marry him and live with him and have babies with him.’” I smiled and said she was sweet. They looked surprised. “Do you want me to be angry with her?” The girls were still doubtful, so I added: “It was a bit inappropriate.”

In the classroom, someone saw a drawing on the board, in black pen, in the bottom, right-hand corner. Varahna had rubbed off what she’d done, except for one, little heart. She told me to leave it there. The corner was the safest place, at the bottom (she couldn’t reach the top). The heart was on its side, the pointy bottom facing right, as if it was lying down. 

“Varahna did that,” a boy said. 

“How do you know?” 

“She does hearts like that.”

It wasn’t her first. It got rubbed off, but I didn’t do it. You take care of your little hearts.

On Monday morning, at the girls’ school, I had Year 7. A girl removed her headscarf, like Varahna, but she didn’t speak; she just put it on the desk beside her. Another child glared at her and asked accusingly, “Why did you take your scarf off?”

In the afternoon, I had Year 10. We watched Of Mice and Men. A video is easy in summer term, especially after lunch. They’d read the book, but now all the copies were shut and stacked neatly on the teacher’s table. It was dark and warm inside the room. Heavy curtains kept out the sun but swelled from time to time with a gust of air. We came to the part when Lennie kills Curley’s wife. She tells him to touch her hair. He’s about to touch it; you know he’s going to. A couple of girls called out instinctively, together, like a chorus, “Don’t do it!”

“It’s too late, girls,” I intoned. “There’s nothing you can do. Destiny will take its course.”

The class exploded. Then he killed her, and the bird flapped violently inside the barn. I didn’t find any sympathy among the girls, not for Curley’s wife. She was a man-eater, a slut who had it coming.

“You girls are hard-hearted.”

“Do you feel sorry for her?” someone asked, surprised.

“I feel sorry for everyone.”

I’ll remember that lesson – and the lunch hour, the sideways heart. I’ll remember Varahna the piranha.

Friday, 8 November 2019

You are, you are

The Year 6 teacher was ill, and I was filling in. I didn’t know the class. The first lesson was English, a comprehension. We read through the text together. It was all predictable, all a bit dull, like a normal lesson. Then we came across cadaverous, tripped on it, rather, like a dead body. It’s not a normal Year 6 word. I woke up. I told the children what a cadaver was.

“It’s a metaphor here. Your teacher goes to a party and has too much to drink. In the morning, when she wakes up, she looks in the mirror. What do you think she sees?”

“A dead body,” someone said. The children had woken up too.

“Then she calls in sick, and I come.”

I smiled wryly. For a minute or so, we discussed the metaphor, how their teacher could resemble a corpse. There was a pause.

“You’re the best teacher we’ve ever had.”

A boy said it, a couple of desks away. I turned to him.

“Really?”

“You are, you are!” said a girl with wide eyes in the row behind him. The lesson continued. Some children were misbehaving. The boy was one of them.

“If I was the best teacher you’ve ever had, you wouldn’t misbehave, would you?”

He smiled wryly. I don’t remember his name, but the girl with wide eyes was Mahjida. Her family was from Afghanistan. I teased her when I knew her better. When I said her name, I emphasised the Mah. I stretched it out: “Hello, M-a-hjida” or “Yes, M-a-hjida.” I said her name when I didn’t need to, just to play with it. The children noticed, quite naturally.

“Why do you say M-a-hjida?” someone asked.

“I like it. I think she likes it too.”

Mahjida. The name means glorious. Whenever we met, she gave me a hug. She didn’t run like Varahna. She was two years older. She stepped up demurely and put her arms around me. Once, she did it in the line for assembly. I was standing near the entrance to the hall. As she walked past, she hugged me in front of everybody.

She had several cousins, all girls. The ones I knew were younger than her, in other classes. Their names all began with Ma, like Mahtab and Masooma – moonlight and sinless. They all wore headscarves to conceal their hair, and they all had trousers when they went swimming.

“It’s our religion,” the youngest explained.

Mahjida had one more cousin, Marzia, in Year 5. Marzia was different. For a start, as you can see, her name had an r in it, and the meaning wasn’t so positive. Marzia was satisfactory. There was another difference.

One day, I mentioned Mahjida to her.

“Oh, Mahjida!” she groaned. “She thinks you’re the best teacher ever!”

“Mahjida loves me. Masooma loves me. Mahtab loves me,” Pause. “You love me.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Yes, you do, deep down. You just don’t know it.” A longer pause. “I saw your hair in Year 4.”

“Fine!”

They should have called her Marwa. That means stone.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

I love you too

Varahna’s school is in south-east London, across the river, a few minutes from Tower Bridge. Once, I took her class on a walking trip. It wasn’t my idea. No lesson plan; we were simply told to go. There must have been something to teach – all that history, all that river – but I couldn’t think of it. When we got there, we stepped on the bridge, looked down at the flowing water, then walked back again. It was a waste of time, except for Varahna, who walked next to me and put her arm in mine.

Walking. You do a lot of it in school. Schools slow things down. For a child, the year never ends. Varahna’s school is Victorian. Signs say Girls’ Entrance, Boys’ Entrance, but no one bothers now. The signs are carved in stone, fixed in time, like the school itself, a well-meaning ogre, clumsy and hard to be with. Stone gets in the way. The stairs are narrow. There are big footprints painted on them: yellow on the left for going up, blue for going down. They’re on each step, meant for walking feet. All you have to do is follow.

One morning, as usual, I was late. The children were lined up in the yard. I came down to collect them, Varahna’s class again. I saw Céline first, through the doorway. Her eyes lit up. I just stared. The class cheered. I hadn’t been in for months. They knew someone was coming, but they didn’t know who. Varahna was at the front of the line, in the doorway, facing out. She hadn’t seen me.

“Hallo, sweetie,” I said. She turned around, said my name and hugged me. The children filed in; another girl hugged me; a couple of the boys shook my hand. As Céline approached, she kept her head low and tried to sneak past, as a child does when she thinks she is forgotten. I hugged her, too; a giant one, fit for the footprints on the stairs.

“I missed you!” I said, like an apology. For a few moments, she waited at the side as the other children went upstairs, then she walked on. Varahna stayed till everyone had gone. When she spoke, she was looking at the wall. She was only nine.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

In class, I wrote the date on the board. 10.10.10. Some children giggled.

“And next year, will it be 11, 11, 11?”

“Yes,” the children answered in chorus.

“Then 12, 12, 12?”

“Ye-e-e-s!” they chimed.

“Then 13, 13, 13?”

“Ye-e-e-s!”

“Oh, children!” cried the teaching assistant. The year never ends.

Varahna preferred games to lessons, running to walking. The next time I saw her, we were in a corridor, at different ends. She was outside the staffroom. The door was open, and there were teachers inside. Varahna didn’t care. She shouted my name and ran the full length of the corridor straight into my arms, without slowing. She had started doing this. She ran across the playground too. As long as there was space between us, she ran – the bigger the space, the faster she ran – except three times that I remember. The first time, we were in assembly. She didn’t look at me. If she did, she’d have to run, and you can’t do that in assembly. I wondered how long she’d last till she couldn’t not look any more. It took the whole assembly. As she walked out, she smiled, but she still didn’t run. The second and third times were connected. It was lunch. She was in the hall, talking to the deputy-head. When she saw me, she took a step forward instinctively, then stopped. In the yard, minutes later, when she saw me again, she didn’t run either. She was self-conscious. I thought, She’s growing up. But she hugged me as she always did, then turned around with her back against me and let me hold her.

“Where’s Céline?” I asked.

“She went to another school.”

Varahna was holding something; a few, tiny strips of blue cellophane. Most of them blew away. She gave the last one to me. It’s on my desk now, as bright as ever, in a little dish along with some paper clips and a lock of hair.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

I nearly called you miss

In one classroom, a girl called me dad. In another, a girl called me miss. Both times, everyone laughed.

“Miss is short for mister,” I explained. Pause.

“No, it’s not!” a boy said suspiciously. An independent mind. The children had to do a written task. I was standing at the front, talking to one of the teaching assistants. I usually call them miss – if they’re women, and they usually are. I looked down at the child beside me. She wasn’t writing. I opened my mouth to speak, something encouraging, but stopped and said: “I nearly called you miss!”

It was the first thing I said to Varahna. She looked up in delight, and her heart was mine.

The assistant told her to concentrate.

“Varahna!” she said several times in a warning tone, and each time, the little girl grinned at me, like sharing a joke. It was a good reason not to concentrate.

On the whiteboard, there was a list of expectations in black pen and the normal teacher’s best handwriting. Just three expectations, very few for a list of this sort, but the board was small to start with, and miss had to use it for teaching. I expect these three were, in her view, the most important.

·         Be resiliant
·         Contribute in class when the need arrises
·         Show independance

In spelling, too. Next, we had a test. Ten words to spell. At the end, Varahna put her hand up. She was grinning again.

“What was number five?”

I wanted to repeat it, but if I did, I'd have to do the same for everyone. We'd never finish. I said I couldn't tell her. I explained why. She still grinned. During break, I corrected the test. Varahna got every word wrong and practically every letter. I’m not exaggerating. It was the worst spelling test I’ve ever seen; so bad, it was touching. When she asked about number five, she must have known that every word was wrong. Be resiliant. That’s Varahna.

I make mistakes too. Once, I called her Varhana, another Bangladeshi name.

“Not Varhana, Varahna!” she replied, as if she’d told me for the hundredth time, but her eyes were laughing.

The last lesson of the day. A class can be naughty. I was getting cross.

“I might not come again.”

There was a soft cry of pain. Céline. I wasn’t looking at her, but I recognised her voice. Some cries are like words. I tried to explain – I do this a lot, even for a teacher – to the whole class, but the words were for Céline. I said I’d always come if I was called, though a lot had to happen before that: their teacher had to be away; the school had to call the agency I worked for, and there were lots of agencies; then the agency had to call me, and agencies had lots of teachers. When I finished, I glanced at Céline. She didn’t seem to feel much better.

At home time, the assistant took the children downstairs, all except Céline and Varahna. They stayed behind when they shouldn’t have, and sat together in the front row. Show independance. I stepped across. Varahna put her arms out, then Céline, and the hugs were done.

“I’ll miss you,” I said as they walked away.

A few weeks later, I returned to the same school for a different class. At lunchtime, a group of Year 4 girls appeared at the door. When the need arrises.

“What’s my name?” one asked.

Céline.”

“Oh, my God!” Pause. Céline pointed to the child next to her. “What’s her name?”

“Does it start with V?”

“I told you!” Céline whispered to Varahna.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Céline (new version)

What did Céline give her pet snail for Christmas? 

The Year 4s were passing through a joke phase, and I thought I’d help out beyond the lesson plan. Céline tipped her head at me and made a funny face. She had her own charm. She stressed the first syllable of her name. It’s one of those things a French girl can do. The children had picked it up. I took a bit longer. 

There were some hopeful answers to my riddle, but I shook my head. After a certain time, like a vaudeville routine, the whole class chanted, “We don’t know, Mr Spaid. What did Céline give her pet snail for Christmas?” 

Céline. They got the intonation even when they chanted. Our riddles were inventive but not very funny. I won’t go through them all. As for my snail one, there must have been an answer, but I don’t remember it. Céline hadn’t spoken. Her eyes sparkled, though.   

The windows were open. A smell was floating in. Some children were sniffing the air.

“That’s the Chinese restaurant,” I explained. “It’s just over there.” I pointed. “They do snails.”

“Yuk!” someone said. It was true about the snails. I’d seen the menu.

“What are you having for lunch?” I responded.

“Chicken with salad.”

     “Are you sure?” 

The riddles got sillier. We could do one more, I said. Céline raised her hand. 

“Why did Mr Spaid go to the toilet?” 

As she spoke, she looked at me sweetly. The toilet. Mr Spaid. It was a tricky one. The children were stuck or preferred not to answer. 

“We don’t know, Céline.” Céline with the golden curls. “Why did Mr Spaid go to the toilet?”

“To have a poo!” 

It was lunchtime. The children filed out. I was sitting on the soft chair at the edge of the carpet. Céline was in the line, but as she passed by, she stepped over and put her arms around me. 

Every day, at half past three or a little later, the children were collected by their parents. We waited in the yard. Céline’s father came. She’d be standing next to me. She didn’t run about like the others. She kept an eye on the gate. When her father walked in, she made a sad face. One day, she said, “I wish he didn’t come so soon.” 

He was never the first in, but he wasn’t the last, either. There were still plenty of children about. He looked around sympathetically and said things like, “They are running you a merry race, monsieur.” 

Once, he complained about Céline: “I speak to her in French, and she answers in English!” 

In summer, she wore a cotton frock like the other girls, but she also had leggings that came down over her knee. She always wore them, even if it was hot. Her mother was Algerian. We never met. One home time, I prompted Céline about her.

“Your Daddy likes me. Do you think your Mummy would like me too?”

She thought a moment, then answered carefully, “I told her about you.”

After school, I caught the bus, opposite the restaurant with snails. Bus shelters aren’t very big; they get crowded. A minute ago, there were places to sit, but you won’t find one now. Céline was standing with her father. I raised my hand. When she saw me, she called out my name and ran towards me as if she knew why, past the shelter and the row of people who had found a place to sit, so fast I thought she’d tumble into me. She pulled up, though, a yard away and smiled instead. She smiled at herself too. She had almost hugged me in front of everyone.

Monday, 8 July 2019

You’ve been a real friend

A few months after leaving Greece, I returned to Bryan’s and picked up my things. It was almost four years until I saw him again. I didn’t go to Salonica straightaway. I flew to the island of Skyros, via Athens. I told him I was going, but I didn’t invite him. It was cruel. Bryan was bored at home. All those sewing evenings. He snored, though, and wandered off when we travelled together. The boredom had knitted into him.

On Skyros, my first morning, I ate sweet bougatsa, walked empty roads and smelt the wild sage. A farmer gave me a lift on his tractor, a mile or so, but when I got down, I felt I knew him. Bryan would have liked all of this. I was looking for Rupert Brooke’s grave. Bryan had mentioned it. Tris Boukes. I can hear his soft voice. His lips moved gingerly. He didn’t speak Greek and never tried to learn, but he was pleased; he’d pronounced it. The grave was worth a visit, he said, but it was hard to find. There were no signs. That wildness again. In England, there would have been a trail. Perhaps there is now. The neatness would spoil it, but you’d find the grave. He passed on some tips. They weren’t very useful. I never found it. If he’d been there, he would have shown me for himself. But he wasn’t. I hadn’t wanted him. Brooke was long dead, and Bryan is too. I’m not very good at finding graves.

If I had to be buried in a hard place, I’d choose Tris Boukes. I’ve seen a photograph: a plot on a stony slope, ringed by olive trees. I got close. I remember stony ground, a quiet sea and an olive grove, just not the right one. Brooke rested there with his party, that April, when the sage was flowering, long before any photographs. It is, indeed, a lovely place; not worth dying for but lovely nonetheless. We like a dead poet more than a living one. The Greeks like Brooke more than the English do – ironically, considering what he wrote, a foreign field being forever England. Maybe they haven’t read his poems.

In Salonica, I went to see Bryan. I apologised for going to Skyros without him. He swung his head around and peered at me mournfully. I made an excuse about the timetable and fully-booked flights. He wasn’t convinced. He thought I didn’t care. Perhaps I didn’t.

When I left, he was standing in the entrance to his apartment block, facing the road. I noticed the lines near his mouth, then caught his eye and wished I hadn’t. He’d read my mind. You’re old. But I said, “You’ve been a real friend.”

The words were banal, yet they felt apt – until I’d said them. They touched Bryan, anyway. His eyes misted. He meant a lot to me, but I meant more to him. Without our knowing, it was the last time we met.

His apartment block was on a corner at the edge of the paralia. For some reason, it had two addresses, one for each side of the corner, though the entrance was only on one. The addresses were written above the door, to prevent ambiguity, I suppose. That was the intention. He advised me to put both of them on the letters I sent. 

“If they don’t get to me at one, they will at the other.”

I wasn’t sure, and now he’s not at either.

To get to Bryan’s, I usually took a bus along the paralia. Sometimes, I chose a different route, the number 6, down Vasilissis Olgas. From Bryan’s stop, you walk through narrow lanes between apartment blocks. They mute the traffic. It’s not far, but it’s so dark and dusty, you might be underground. When you reach Bryan’s, you reach the sun; you feel, even here, in drab Salonica, the dazzle of the islands. Walking back, it’s not so nice. The lanes are the same, but the harbour’s missing, and Bryan isn’t waiting on the other side. On my final walk, I heard a man yelling. I turned around. Two women were jogging towards me. They didn’t look Greek. The man was waving his fist at them, like a scene from a movie. They must have stolen something, money, probably, but there are other things. It was theirs now, whatever it was, safe beneath the shawls. As they drew nearer, I saw they were smiling. They hardly jogged, and then they walked, like me. He was too old to chase them.