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Sharon was usually waiting for me outside her front door. She said the sound of the doorbell woke her dad up. It was a comfort that she was as I was liable to walk straight past even when I didn’t have my headphones on. I was looking out for the door number ostensibly, but in my head, I was usually somewhere else.
This was my job. My job was at her house. I worked with her daughter. Sometimes her daughter didn’t get out of bed. Then Sharon and I would observe what was going on on Breakfast TV. The screen was almost as wide as the wall so it was as if observing the people in the neighbouring room. The people depicted were made-up and in high definition. I am sure breakfast programmes are lit in a special way, with a bright blue-sky effect. Everyone smiling in just the way I knew I wanted smile in the mornings: as if completely ready and prepared.
‘Where you goin’?’ she’d call over the rubbish in her front garden.
She had a twinkle in her eye. I knew she had never worked a day in her life, had been on the social since the birth of her first child at the age of 17, had been ferried between council houses and baby fathers – and had now come to live with her parents in their council house. She had her youngest daughter living with them too. This one probably wouldn’t leave.
Going to this house made me think of the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a house packed with three generations of family in a way that seemed unusual nowadays. The smell of detergent pervaded the air and the washing machine was never not on. I half expected the matriarch to be boiling cabbages.
It was a coincidence that Sharon and I had been to the same comprehensive school as children, and she was two years ahead of me. We remembered teachers that had taught both of us. Some of them infamous. There was one English teacher who had been both well-known and well-liked. Though her methods had been considered unorthodox. She would phone the parents of her pupils late at night, having just finished her marking, just to praise the child’s brilliance and originality. She let pupils smoke cigarettes in the classroom instead of letting them go for breaktimes: her cigarettes no less. Silk Cut blue Sharon reminded me. This teacher – no longer working there – had been passionate about literature, but more than that she had been passionate about her pupils, the progress they made and was keen to let anyone know – especially anyone who had ever doubted the child’s ability.
The fact that Sharon and I both knew this teacher and had been to the same school gave us the level playing field on which to communicate. Indeed, the school was walking distance from her house. This memory and others of teachers less popular (Mr Connors who threw the board brush at children’s heads) sets the scene for this story along with the happy faces on Breakfast TV eternally telling us what would be coming up next.
Sharon’s daughter Milly would always come downstairs in her pyjamas. That is, she wouldn’t always come downstairs, but if she did it would be in her pyjamas. She was sixteen and though her skin was grey through, I’m guessing, lack of exposure to sunlight and vitamin D deficiency, her hair had the shine of youth. She carried a lot of weight and in her PJs of indefinite whitish colour she looked like she was inside a giant baby grow. She did not seem nervous or suspicious of me as some of my other tutees were. She had a quick mind and a way of making neat little summaries about the texts we read – I think. in part, to fob me off – but nonetheless skilfully. What she was able to do, in this method she had of fobbing me off – in her effort to hasten the proceedings was actually an employable skill. Especially as her observations seem accurate. The superficial nature of them only made them more applicable to the tick-box career she aspired to.
‘She’s just showing that she cares’ she replied reproachfully after I asked her what she thought of the woman in the paper who married a 25ft tree to stop the council from knocking it and other elders down in its plan to build a bypass through this woman’s local park.
‘Okay. Do you see the metaphors?’ I asked her.
She shook her head as if to say: I’m afraid not. It should have been clearer.
‘Word play?’ I said pointing to the title ‘With – This -Ring, I Tree -Wed’
What about this bit? I asked: ‘’towering over her, the groom swayed a bit looking brown and rather wooden”? I would open my eyes widely at Milly expectantly like watch out! A pot of gold is just about to drop onto your lap.
Milly shook her head sadly as if to say my strategies really were not working on her at this time in the morning.
She was good though at explaining protagonist’s fears and especially at identifying lurking health issues; things lurking.
Sharon would stare over at me sometimes. She didn’t always leave the room during tutoring. Unless she needed to take a shower, or she had called a taxi to take her to the shopping centre. She usually hobbled about – from the kitchen to the front room and back again- as her back and legs ached. She told me she’s had surgery on her back only two years ago. Occasionally, she came and plonked herself between Milly and me on the seductively soft faux leather sofa. This sofa was covered in layers of blankets – some dog blankets – and cloths and bags – it was a sofa which always smelt slept upon. When this happened, I felt even less like a tutor and struggled to remember how to behave. I easily sunk into a warm comfortable existence. It was so difficult to find the leverage to haul myself up, to sit up, and try to recreate an assemblage of an appropriate learning space. When I began the tutoring, this was usually before Milly had appeared, I used to take my folder of resources and the key texts out of my bag and perch them on a spindly gilt-edged coffee table, one that looked like it had originally come in a batch of three, each one bigger than the next, but these had likely been separated a long time ago. My resources looked ungainly and unsuitable in this room amongst the piles of clean laundry and unopened Christmas presents for the granddaughter Sharon’s son would not allow her to see.
How am I meant to tutor Milly over her mother? I remember thinking the first time it happened.
It was not just that Sharon didn’t want to get up off the sofa after 10 minutes or so, but that she actually couldn’t get up because it was like being lulled into more of a lying-down position than a sitting position. And her ailments didn’t help. When this happened the three of us would just look up helplessly at the telly. Sometimes, I resorted to telling jokes, to the two of them. Designed to complement them both on their intelligence shared through genes as well as proximity. It passed the time and I didn’t want to lose my job.
‘What would you do without her? Eh?’ I’d say to the mum beside me. Usually, the mum would just glower at me in a don’t you come muscling in on my family sort of way. One time I put out my hands, alongside hers
‘You ever been married?’ I asked, demonstrating that I hadn’t and wasn’t, admiring the rings on her wedding finger
‘Nah’ she’d replied.
One day it was raining so hard, I arrived drenched. I wondered why I hadn’t asked Dan to drive me. He probably would have done too.
‘Why d’you come?’ Sharon demanded. ‘You didn’t have to come,’ she reminded me.
She knew I’d be paid. You cancel so often I thought to myself. But I just muttered something about how it would not be professional.
‘Take your coat off. I’ll hang it up for you.’ Her mother, Milly’s grandmother stood behind her. You’re drenched the grandmother said like I had a screw loose to have made this journey. I noticed she had intelligent eyes, they were grey and kind, and, in a flash, I could see how all 3 women were connected.
Sharon went into the kitchen to make me the regular sweet coffee in a tall latte glass with a long spoon. I think it came in a sachet and although I never remember asking for this particular coffee it would seem rude to try to change or ask for an alternative to this treat. I took my usual spot on the sofa, just sitting on the edge of it, and looked out upon the huge wall of happy faces on breakfast TV. I could see every pore in the face of the main presenter. For all her glamour, quite unflattering.
‘She’s been up all night,’ Sharon said eventually. ‘I don’t think she’ll come down.’
‘Oh? ‘I said. ‘Is it her anxiety?’ quickly running through the list of difficulties, hoping I’d landed on the right one.
‘And her asthma’ her mother added looking at me gravely ‘and it’s her tits, they’re still seepin’.
‘Oh,’ I said and smiled politely. The first time I’d heard her say this I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.
‘The dermatologist cancelled her appointment again. I could kill him. And I got a letter yesterday tellin’ me that she’s been discharged as they ‘aven’t seen us. Can you believe that? The cheek of it! See this!’ She thrust the letter at me with the damning NHS insignia at the top. I nodded in acknowledgment.
Milly’s mother moved slowly around the room.
‘Honestly, I feel I need to stand in a snowstorm. The sweat’s been keepin’ me up all night’
‘Has it just started?’ I asked referring to the menopause she had mentioned before.
‘Nah!’ she said like I had to be joking. ‘It’s ten years.’
I didn’t want to ask if she meant it had started 10 years ago, or that she was safely inside, in the very midst of her 10-year slog.
‘I think mine’s just beginning’ I told her.
She gave me the twinkle in her eye again and one of her sighs perhaps to show that she had been a member longer, but she would help me if I played my cards right.
‘This is when her autism gets bad’ she changed the subject. She was angry now. It’s times like this when she really needs to be able to express herself, but she can’t.
‘Was she autistic as a baby?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, never wanted to play with other kids but never want to be left alone’ she said cryptically. ‘She’s got attachment issues you see.’
I thought this sounded psychoanalytic.
‘So, she can’t break her attachment to you?’ I asked helpfully. I didn’t want to suggest or sound like I was suggesting the other way round.
‘Nah’ can’t do anything. Can’t get on a bus. Can’t leave the house without me.’
‘I don’t know what I’m goin’ ‘to do if they change her school. But the bird there – the one I was speakin’ to last week – I told you about ‘er – she boils my blood. She says she don’t know anything about Milly, that she wasn’t there when Milly was there so she can’t help me. I says to her, well how am I meant to get any help? She says if Milly don’t come in there is nothin’ they can do. I says to her, she won’t leave the house. She won’t even leave her room and whatcha going do about it eh? Even if I could get her down there, I know she not going to speak to them. She goes to me there’s no need to be rude. I says to ‘her how she goin’ to take her exams and she says well she has to come in and I says well she can’t fuckin’ come in can she cos she’s fuckin’ autistic you dozy cunt.’
‘Sounds like you’re going round in circles’ I suggested.
Milly had drawn me a picture of the pig Old Major from Orwell’s Animal Farm a fortnight ago. I had asked her to do some drawing about the novella for homework as she refused to write. I knew though, through the proofreading tasks she had completed for me and the way she followed the book word-for -word that she probably could write. In fact, I suspected she was able to do it well. I knew when I asked her what the phrases and words meant, some of them seldom used nowadays – like the word seldom – that she knew quite a lot about words. And where she didn’t know, she used contextual clues. She was savvy.
She’d told me when her mother wasn’t in the room, but probably listening in the kitchen, she had never had a social studies class, but she knew political language and concepts: ideology; scapegoat; common enemy; how power corrupts; propaganda. Anyway, she had drawn this picture of Old Major carefully and skilfully in black biro adding some red marker pen. He was depicted in Sugar Candy Mountain with wings and huge insect eyes and horns drawn in red marker pen; also, she had accurately drawn the trotters. He had become an angel she explained to me and was looking down at the hash the animals were making of the farm. Just like Vladimir Lenin might. I didn’t want to take her picture; it was so good. The horns were a red herring, but it made it interesting. It was her own work. At my request, she signed it. Her mother was in the room at that point, and I sensed a genuine connection between the two of them.
‘You were good at drawing too?’ I asked Sharon sensing a feeling of unity and pride.
She replied that she had loved art, and had been really good at it and didn’t I remember the murals she’s done on the walls at school?
When I’d got home at lunchtime, I put Milly’s picture into an old photo frame and placed it amongst pictures of my family members. I felt proud of her.
As we waited for Milly, we watched Breakfast TV; it was a programme about someone furnishing someone else’s home as a surprise and all done for free. It was emotional – the ending. The viewer was trying, with the presenter’s encouragement, to anticipate the delight that this would ensue. How would they react once they discovered their house had been broken into and renovated, corrected, and glorified by nothing less than a team of angels?
The presenter gently ushered the blindfolded mother into her home Then the mother removed her blindfold.
‘Oh, I can’t believe it!’ It’s just so beautiful! ‘she said on cue.
‘Do you like it?’ the presenter asked stupidly.
‘Oh, it’s such an improvement the mum replied dabbing her eyes. ‘It’s unbelievable.’ The T.V host looked on philanthropically like some sort of TV priestess confirming that it was probably what she deserved for being a good person and so caring in the community. It was if she were saying these things do happen to good people so long as you continue to watch TV. I felt happy for this humble hardworking mother and for her husband and kids too as they frolicked delightedly in their brand-new bedrooms.
‘Well, I should be going,’ I said to Sharon. I’d drunken the coffee. I picked up my folder and carefully leafed through it, tucking the papers inside.
‘I can leave Milly some homework to do?’ I suddenly said.
I’m sorry but she does get like this. I thought of calling you this morning. I don’t know why I didn’t and then when I saw it was raining, I really didn’t think you’d come.’
‘No, no, it’s no trouble.’ I said wondering if I really had been daft to come in this weather. It was still raining heavily.
‘Why don’t you get your husband to pick you up?’
‘I think he would as well,’ I replied glad to sound that I was in the sort of solid relationship where I could depend upon favours such as these and knowing also that I wasn’t going to ask him. I needed to leave in the same spirit of independence with which I had arrived. The TV programme had influenced me and made me feel I needed to stick to a good person ‘type’. As only this way there might be a long-term payoff.
Then, Milly appeared in her pyjamas. Her shiny hair framing her grey face. She wore fluffy socks and she shuffled to the chair she always sat in at an angle from where I sat on the sofa. The folder to my right, away from her. She just had the sweets and the remote control. She pulled a cushion onto her lap. And looked sad but not unreceptive. She looked like she had wanted to come down just for a few minutes but couldn’t explain. Her mother stared at her:
‘Well this is a surprise, what time do you call this madam?’
I remember asking Milly as we began our tutoring once if it was alright to turn the sound down on the television, but my words hadn’t come out and she had just nodded to say that it was fine – that is for me to start the lesson with the TV on, to speak over it, and that it was okay; it wouldn’t disturb anyone. And if it hadn’t been for the fact that she couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t physically continue, I might have just gone along with it. I so wanted her to feel comfortable.
‘Hi Milly. It’s nice to see you,’ I said, I was never sure of the register to use when her mum was there as if it would have been easier to negotiate the tone had it just been Milly and me. The folder teetered on the coffee table.
I felt a pause would be appropriate. To acknowledge my corner of the triangle we were in.
‘Abby’s been waiting for you,’ Sharon announced reproachfully. ‘She was just about to go home.’
Milly wasn’t sheepish. She looked up at me and smiled. But she was in pain. She was so far away inside herself. Inside her heavy hurting body. She clutched the cushion to her with her young soft hands and then she screwed up her face and she started to weep. Her tears were hopeless.
The mother looked to me for a reaction.
I felt affected. I pressed my lips together as if trying to separate and establish boundaries in my mind.
‘You had your meds yet?’ Sharon asked her daughter stiffly. She seemed to be demonstrating that she could be shouty because she was the mum. She walked into the kitchen and brought back kitchen roll. She tore off two pieces and gave them to Milly to wipe her tears.
‘You don’t have to do any work today,’ I announced freshly like I was trying to reward her just for her appearance. ‘I’m just glad to see you. Thank you for coming downstairs.’ I wanted to get the right touch of personal. ‘I can leave some work for you to do, if you want to do it – for homework?’
‘Look Milly, tutor says you don’t have to do work,’ Sharon said as if an official reprieve had been granted and I had been the bringer of this good news.
I rubbed my forehead feeling like it would soon be time for me to leave. I rifled through the folder and felt panicked that I couldn’t give her a fresh piece of work as a homework task. Everything I had had already been written on or was only available to read on my phone. And then I breathed. I found a resource two years old to the day about a storm Ciara that happened in February and the pupil had to rewrite the passage adding interesting adjectives. Following this, there was a passage about Valentine’s Day to be amended and improved. I knew Milly has said she wouldn’t write for me, but maybe this time, she might, if she could focus, if she could be alone.
‘Here you are,’ I said triumphantly as if this piece of paper gave meaning to this day.
Milly was sobbing uncontrollably. I felt drawn to her.
I then felt I was going to cry.
‘I’m sorry’ I said to her mother. For it was she I knew I should apologise to. Not just address but apologise to. I needed her permission. Her permission to spill the words I wanted to say.
I turned back to Milly. ‘It’s just such a pleasure to teach you,’ I said. ‘Always a pleasure because you have so much ability.’ I wiped my eyes.
I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable or that she owed me anything just because I had come, and she hadn’t want to come downstairs. I didn’t want her to feel that she was indebted. I don’t think she did feel that. I think she felt something else, something she couldn’t say.
‘It doesn’t always come out but it’s there,’ I continued, ‘you have so much ability.’
‘It’s there. Thank you for coming down’
I felt I wanted to hug her so I said, ‘I wish I could hug you,’ I looked over at Sharon, ‘but I can’t because it is unprofessional.’
Sharon looked at me in an oddly smug way and handed me a sheet of kitchen roll.
I’m sorry I said to Sharon. This is so unprofessional. I was vaguely aware that this admission, this confession was making her feel vindicated in some way; good about herself somehow. As if she was the master of this ceremony. ‘Don’t tell anyone’ I added collusively as if helping her to enjoy her status more.
Sharon took my wet coat off the hanger and gave it to me to put on. I had trouble zipping it up over my cardigans and scarf. I put the folder into my bag. I fitted it in snugly, but my pencil case, phone, phone charger and glasses case stuck out at angles inside straining it.
I walked out into the small hallway.
‘Bye,’ I called out to Milly – still wiping my eyes.
Sharon opened the front door for me, and grandmother looked at me from behind waving goodbye. Did she think me a nutcase?
‘It really is a pleasure for me to teach Milly,’ I repeated to Sharon now outside looking at her as she stood slightly above me on the doorstep. I was aware I was repeating myself and I didn’t know why I was using the same words.
It’s a privilege to you that she came down.’ Sharon said to me – as if reminding me. Or pointing out something significant and not to be forgotten.
That is what I should have said I thought. It’s a privilege It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege.
‘You know she wouldn’t do that for anyone.’
It was strange but I had never had the feeling that I was being praised and told off at exactly the same time. And in the rain. I felt suitably humbled.
‘It is a privilege,’ I concurred uncomfortably – feeling as if I had accepted something without really knowing where it was from.