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.