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The list of classes and tutors offered by Mr Dupont’s School for European Languages is printed on small blue cards of blotting paper. Yellow Pages say this list is available on request. But sometimes it can be hard to ask for something if you are not invited to it in the first place, like an estranged mother to a tenth birthday party. I come by a copy of the list on the two p.m. bus, left behind by a cello recital boy:
Chalk (Sticks, Neurosis) – Mr Dupont
Parcel-wrapping – Sadie Ginssprin
The 70s Detective Novel and the Colour Mint Green – Mrs Q. Lowry
Elocution Lessons (wrists, tapioca pudding, French, other) – Miss Klara
Conspiracy Theories – Mr Dupont & several people
The school’s name is misleading, of course. You could say that Mr Dupont’s School for European Languages was a lie from the start, or, from four words in. With the card in my pocket, I alight at the library where a sweet-eyed librarian with hair the colour of a bleached lemon orchard, still ashing from the volcano, tells me I have a fine.
I return home to the sight of my father washing peas. He is likely to be washing peas all his life. “The librarian said, ask your father for money,” I say.
He replies: “Why is it called a fine? Why isn’t it called a nasty?” Which isn’t funny at all.
When I tell Mira about my suspicions that I am the archangel Michael in millennial form, she says: “That’s ridiculous, you’re nothing but a root vegetable.” She had lost her voice at the time so couldn’t actually speak, and besides she was hunched over her laptop, engrossed in YouTube video footage of the volcanic eruption on 66th Avenue. Taxi windows turned pitch black so the people inside, being driven to business meetings and hair appointments, mistook it for nightfall and asked to be taken home. Lava rolled down those twelve white steps, almost politely, like a rug. Mr Dupont’s School suits molten gold, no surprise.
I don’t mind friends who can’t talk. Everyone else is always nervously lending you lighters and waiting for everything to go blue with the light of emergency sirens. Isn’t it possible for atrocious things to happen and for people not to try and turn them into a soap opera on your behalf? I don’t mind Mira losing her voice. A girl who watches thirty online videos of natural disasters a day is never going to expect cataclysms from you.
When Mira feels this lousy, she has a great lunch and makes a long list of everything she ate. The afternoon after we watched Pav play his cello in front of one hundred people, Mira ordered a Marmite sandwich and two bags of cashews. That was when I took the bus home, and found the square of blue blotter left behind by the cello kid, and gave it to Mira because it looked like something torn out of the deepwater sea so I thought it might cheer her up.
That was the second huge mistake.
Mira was fourteen when she applied for Elocution lessons with Miss Klara.
The secretary’s office was in a closed alcove, like a confession booth, with a glass doorway through which the secretary could be seen or reached, like a telephone booth. When she knocked, the secretary held up a giant neon orange arrow which pointed left, without once looking up from her Pot Noodle.
A piano stool left outside the study was the only sign of ceremony, like birthday balloons tied outside your door to steer lost friends or a long-lost parent to your party. Mira waited on the stool for hours, she told me, holding her umbrella up so no one would think she was trying to dump her rain in the school.
At the scene of the interview at Mr Dupont’s School on 66th Avenue, the door to the study opens sweetly, of its own accord. Mira walks in still holding the umbrella like a dripping candelabrum. The first thing she sees is a back. (Back; noun. Meaning, a person who is facing the wet streets instead of the doorway.)
Her arm is aching with politeness. “Shall I leave the umbrella in the umbrella stand?”
Miss Klara’s laugh is a warm cake of a laugh, not entirely smooth, as if there is a fruit stone baked deep into its centre. “Leave the umbrella in the umbrella stand. That’s good. I’ll use that for something. Have it inscribed on a lanyard or something.”
She has the booming, melancholy voice of a tenor taken from chapel-school too early. Her hands are shaking like they want to play the piano but don’t know how.
“When I die,” Miss Klara continued, Mira realising her conversation mostly consisted of answering questions which had not been asked, “I want all the letters of my middle name put into the biggest popcorn bag so they burn like kernels and … ERUPT! into the night sky! POUM!!! – like the saltiest, sweetest cremation in Paris.” She suddenly held Mira by the shoulders.
“Elocution lessons aren’t about making a different language for yourself. They’re a bit like a dance. We start with a change of posture.” Miss Klara turned Mira three times on the spot till the carpet under her shoes was moss. “I take interviews at the museum. What do you say?”
But before Mira had a chance to answer, Miss Klara was already out the door, her words bouncing backwards down the corridor like rabbits who missed the past. What do you say? What do you say? What do you say?
Walking with Miss Klara was like being on one of those 300-foot-long waterslides at amusement parks that were always predicting they would be the ride of your life and filled Mira with both panic and sick, except this waterslide was actually enjoyable, and not too fast, and had plastic cherubs installed at the bends who spoke reassuring platitudes into your ear and wiped foam out of your eyes so you wouldn’t miss the spectacular view. Miss Klara didn’t seem aware of her physical superiority to the girl in the way that most lean white women over thirty-eight made her feel.
(A treatise on the relationship between most lean white women over thirty-eight and Mira Duff: They see her priestly self-awareness as less a credit to her maturity and more an alarming emotional defect, possibly of the psychopathic order. She provokes them to feel that she is the reason why crumbly biscuits sometimes fall in people’s cups of tea.)
Sitting with a tutor whose hands shake constantly, like they’re missing a piano, is like looking through a window and wondering if there is a word for the sound of blowing fir trees that you can’t actually hear through the glass. In a room where even the walls have their back to you – “Slowly, you will stop reading stories about melba cake, and start writing stories called things like ‘Once I threw up on a semi-famous artist’. It’s only a matter of pronunciation” – all her books spilling out of brown cardboard boxes marked ‘fruit and vegetables’, which gave me the idea of how I should order my raspberries for breakfast: in cargo ships, a navy of berries, creaking through the coral for her so that I don’t run out for years and years, so that I don’t run into the sad situation of this morning, with no temporary crowns of fruit for my fingers, no pink stains in the milk. Though living with my parents I don’t have anything remotely resembling a pantry so it would make it difficult; eternal raspberries for the next ten years might occupy a lot of space. Maybe I should look into a house.
This is what happened. Mira would walk up the twelve white steps at two p.m. She would scatter into the study, wringing juice out of her hair, sitting with her chin propped between her wrists like an apple silver from cigarette smoke. She was the listener: all chin, spiky shoulders, wrists. Miss Klara would talk about writers like she’d just been for coffee with them. “Reading Chekhov makes your eyes greener.” And, “I’m sure Rimbaud would have liked a digestive with that too.” She would say words and Mira would repeat them. Date tree. Date tree. Subterfuge. Sub-ter-fuge.
They were a student and a tutor. Their pose was one of someone cupping the other’s chin in their hand, though they couldn’t actually do this, because of regulations. One of them was looking out of windows. One of them was a pessimist. She was all the quivering candles on a birthday cake that weren’t sharp enough to be arrows. Someone should build them a habitat, these endangered, sleep-deprived women.
“What do you buy Miss Klara when you want to impress her?”
Mira swallowed the end of her boiled sweet and looked at me for clues. I was the clue girl today, full of potential and cryptic answers. We were sitting on the upper gallery of the bookshop with our legs dangling down, sucking toffees and making ghost noises at the people browsing Home and Myth. Mira had got it into her head that something must be done for her tutor, some grand action or sign to commemorate the past three weeks.
I chewed my hair to show I was giving the matter great consideration. “Well, first tell me: what’s impressive about Miss Klara?”
I instantly regretted asking. After enduring the full treat of Mira’s avalanching thought process about the 4th of July, electric storms, and something about Miss Klara’s middle name exploding, I lost my temper and snapped: “Oh, just buy her a volcano, then.”
Mira seemed to genuinely consider this. “I can’t just buy her a volcanic eruption.”
A thought was slowly baking in my mind. “Why not?”
“I don’t think Waterstones stocks in planetary ruptures. I can’t buy her a volcano – shut up, by the way.”
“Then buy her a book.”
Later, Mira would come back and unpack the box from the bookshop and leave it on a table for Miss Klara to see. Oh, that rectangle? That’s just a book, dropped like a bad biscuit abandoned by someone who had badder things on their mind.
But how is a book a volcano?
When a natural disaster strikes, it leaves things behind, and once time has passed these things become pointing fingers that will make somebody come along, as they always do, and look in the direction pointed at, and deduce something. So, Mira’s book was the beautiful rubble which would invite a historical deduction, as all abandoned lustrous things do, that an impressive volcano has just erupted. The volcano itself didn’t matter. Miss Klara wouldn’t care for an explanation. Who cares? Things are going up in flames every hour for twenty-four hours, but there is too much confetti on the ground to look at smoke.
What do you buy Miss Klara when you want to impress her?
That was the only thing for it.