Gary arrived at my door unexpectedly. He was about twenty-something, I guessed, although he could have been a teenager who had been well-weathered by a stormy upbringing. His face was hard and his cropped hair merely compounded the appearance of density. He was lean and muscular with the stance of a construction worker and the nervous agitation of a miscreant schoolboy up before the headmaster. He was dressed casually and there was mud on his boots.
“You teaches French, don’ yuh?” He said, without wasting time on introductions or common courtesies. I nodded but before I could speak he continued with,
“I wants to learn French.”
There was a short silence while I composed myself. My individual clients, who I teach in their own homes, are professional people and at my evening classes the students come from the educated middle-class. The man before me seemed to have barely mastered the rudiments of the English language and yet wished to learn a second. My first thought was to tell him that I was fully booked but instead, I enquired,
“Why do you want to learn French?”
He gazed at me with the pity that the working-class reserve for those who are not au fait with popular culture.
“I’m goin’ to the World Cup in France next year an’ I wanna keep outta trouble.” He declared as if that were the only explanation necessary.
I am not so ignorant of the world around me that I don’t know that the World Cup concerns football and that England, miraculously, I gather, qualified for the final stages.
“ ‘Ow much is it?” He asked.
I told him and he didn’t seem surprised.
“When can I start?” He wanted to know. I told him the times I was free and he said I could come on Wednesdays because, ‘My aunt Di comes round for tea on Wednesdays.’ He was not forthcoming with the connection between his aunt’s visit and language lessons so I just wrote down his name and address and told him I would be there at seven p.m.
“See you on Wednesday, then.” He said then walked off down the street.
There was little preparation I could do and during the first lesson I would ascertain the level of his French and so be able to plan a course to suit his individual ability and needs. I don’t know why but I took it for granted that he had a little ability. I was in for a very rude awakening.
At two minutes to seven on the Wednesday evening I rang the door-bell of number 127, Halcyon Drive, which is situated in one of the most deprived inner-city areas, not just of this town, but, of the whole of Britain. The door-bell played the National Anthem and I had heard most of the first verse before Gary came to the door. He looked at me as though I was a completely unexpected visitor then blinked his eyes and said,
“Aw! It’s you. Come in.”
He kicked toys out of the way as he led me into a room that boasted four armchairs and a television set. There was nothing else in the way of furniture. He pointed to the chair I should sit in and then asked,
“Yuh wanna beer?”
I declined his offer and sat down. I opened my briefcase and took out the necessary books and an A4 pad.
“I’ll be right back.” He announced and left the room. He did not come right back and I could hear him shouting and somebody in the other room. The word ‘bitch’ was used on more than one occasion. I studied chapter one of the text-book even though I knew it almost by heart. Gary appeared some time later with his mouth full and what seemed to be a small pie in his right hand.
“I wuz just havin’ tea.” He explained and, proffering the pie, asked,
“D’yuh want this?”
I told him I wasn’t hungry and suggested that we start the lesson. He sat down opposite me and held his knees with his hands.
“Right! It’s all yours. Teach me French.” He said then took a bite out of his pie and chewed it noisily with his mouth open. I looked intently at him so that he could see the shape my lips were making and said,
I might as well have said ‘Xylaxnototriniflegg’ for all the response I elicited. He stared at me for a moment and then spoke, querulously.
“Sorry? What’s that mean?”
I explained that ‘bonjour’ meant ‘hello’ in French.
“You mean that when the Frenchies wanna say hello they says what you just said?”
I concurred that this was indeed the case and that when someone said ‘bonjour’ to him he should reply ‘bonjour’. I suggested that we should try it together. He looked doubtful.
“We can try but don’t forget, this is my first lesson.” He reminded me.
“Bonjour.” I said.
He sat there staring at me for a long moment and then slapped his thigh.
“What was it I wuz supposed to say?” He asked, without a trace of irony.
“When I say bonjour, you say bonjour.” I spoke slowly and clearly while containing my growing irritation. He clasped his hands together.
“You’re going a bit fast for me.” He concluded.
“But it’s just like in English.” I told him. “When someone says hello to you, you say hello in reply.”
“Ah! So it’s ‘hello’-‘hello’. Nah! It’s Allo! Allo!” He spluttered and laughed very loudly for what seemed like a very long time. I glanced, discreetly, at my watch and noted that more than half the allotted hour had passed.
“Bonjour.” I said.
“Bonjour.” He replied.
“That’s right.” I encouraged. “Bonjour.”
“Bonjour.” He repeated.
“Just one more time.” I said. “You start.”
His face became a plaster mask of concentration. I waited. Many seconds passed. He seemed to steel himself for a great effort and then muttered, almost inaudibly,
“Bonjour.” I replied.
His face was a picture of joy unconfined.
“Wuz that right?” He asked me with amazement in his voice.
“Yes.” I confirmed.
“I gotta tell the others.” He said. He got up and left the room and I could hear him repeating the word ‘bonjour’, again and again, out in the kitchen.
“When I says bonjour, you says bonjour.” I heard him say. “It means hello.” He clarified.
“Why don’t they say hello then?” Came the reply.
“Cuz that’s the way they says it.” He said, with a touch of exasperation in his voice. He came back with another pie in his hand, indicated the other room, tapped his temple with his forefinger and confided,
He sat down and I waited until he had finished eating.
“Au revoir.” I said.
“You what?” He said.
“Au revoir.” I repeated. “It means ‘goodbye’.”
“Hold on.” He said, a faint trace of a smile on his thin lips. “Let me get the other one first. What wuz it again? Bon-bon-something or other.”
“Bonjour.” I reminded him.
“Ah yeh. Bonjour.”
“Bonjour.” I said.
“Bonjour.” Was his reply.
He was almost stating it with authority now. I looked at my watch; there were just five minutes left. I told him this and asked whether he wanted to move on to something else
“Nah. That’s enough for this week.” He decided and then, as an afterthought, he added.
“Come and meet the family.”
I followed him into the kitchen. The scene was beyond Dante’s imagination; the room was peopled by characters from a Breughel painting. There was a baby with an overlarge head in a high-chair and he (or she, or it) was eating spaghetti and tomato sauce with its hands. A boy of about two crouched in the corner with half a loaf of bread and ripped chunks off and fed them to the mangy mongrel that lay beside him. Two women sat at the table smoking the longest cigarette I have ever seen and they shared it between them. They were drinking strong lager from the can. Ash-trays overflowed and what seemed to be the contents of a garbage bag was strewn around the floor. There was more of the same on every available surface. Gary introduced me.
“This is my teacher.” He said proudly.
I had been thinking of refusing to take his money and making up an excuse for why I would be unable to continue teaching him but when I heard this I changed my mind. I could not abandon him just because he was a slow learner.
As a teacher, a professional educator, I should rise to this challenge and devise a programme that would identify his strengths and weaknesses. I would have to pin-point the exact area of his needs. Gary paid me and we said goodbye at the door.
“See yuh next Wednesday.” He said.
“Yes. I will see you next Wednesday.” I replied.
All that week I devised strategies for the following lesson. I asked myself, ‘What expressions in French would be useful for a football supporter?’
I amused myself by conjuring up such phrases as, “I am innocent.” and, “I want to see my lawyer.” I smiled when I pictured Gary shouting,
“Vous avez besoin des lunettes, arbitre!” (You need glasses, referee!) He would probably shorten arbitre to ‘arb!’ I was rather looking forward to the following Wednesday.
I arrived at 127, Halcyon Drive, just before seven o’clock. I rang the bell and heard two verses of God save the Queen before the door was opened by one of the women I had seen the previous week. She stood there, blank-faced, glassy-eyed and stared at me.
“Is Gary at home?” I enquired.
“Nah! He’s in prison.” She slurred.
“Oh!” I said.
“The got ‘im for the car.” She explained as though I was fully conversant with the facts of the matter.
“I’m his French teacher.” I informed her.
“Aw. Yeh. I remember,” She said and stumbled against the door as though the recollection had destabilised her. “You can forget that, mate. He’s gonna get two years at least.”
“I am sorry.” I consoled.
“You can teach me. I wants to learn French. ‘Ow much is it?” She wanted to know.
I explained that, in fact, I was fully booked and was only teaching Gary as a special favour.
“Well he won’t be going to France now.” She concluded. “D’yuh wanna beer?”
I declined her offer, wished her well, sent my regards to Gary and walked off down the path. As I got to the street I turned around. She stood there framed in the doorway like a painting on the wall then raised her hand and waved.
“Bonjour.” She called out and giggled.
“Bonjour.” I shouted back.
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