Lisbon, Portugal 2003
I examine my watch; it’s ten past eight in the evening. My student should’ve
been here by eight. Maybe he’s just late. I check my watch again just to make sure, and that familiar feeling takes hold: he’s not going to show up. I can’t be certain, but with every minute that passes, it becomes more and more apparent. That’s when I start praying – praying to the teaching gods – for a no-show.
My student’s Spanish, from Valencia. He has his own business here in Lisbon and works all the hours God sends. He’s pale, serious, with black Brylcreem hair, which matches the colour of his suit. He always looks tired and stressed and has a five o’clock shadow. Sometimes I wish he’d go home to his wife and relax instead of coming here.
It’s now twenty past eight.
‘Come on, please!’ I say under my breath.
I might get to watch the football after all.
I sit at my desk, hoping. My eyes wander round the classroom. Among the posters of smiling students is a microphone sticking out the wall.
‘I wonder if Berlitz ever use that,’ I ponder. ‘Maybe they check to see if you use the method.’
I close my coursebook, International Express, which I borrowed from another school, but then re-open it again not to tempt fate.
Oh no – footsteps!
I hold my breath. The footfalls come closer and closer, louder and louder, with purpose. I try to prepare myself for the worst: the false smile, the ‘Hi!’, the ‘Sorry I’m late’, the ‘That’s okay, don’t worry’, the –
Phew. It’s the cleaner!
‘Olá,’ I say with a pang of relief.
‘Olá.’ He smiles and walks past the door.
In our lessons we talk about business, usually with the radio on. I find the background music creates an ambiance. But sometimes I lose myself in the song. I try to be present and conscious while he talks about his work, shuddering efforts to repress a yawn. But my attention wanders to wherever the music takes me: a beach, a road trip, meandering through an old city. I find myself nodding occasionally and feigning an expression of interest.
Oh my gosh. It’s half past eight!
I go to the reception.
Laura looks busy behind her computer – probably surfing the Internet. Behind her, five clocks show the time in different parts of the world: New York, Rio, London, Moscow and Australia.
‘He’s a bit late today, isn’t he?’ I tell the receptionist. ‘Did he call or leave a message?’
‘Er, let me see.’ She bites her lip. ‘No, he didn’t.’
‘Maybe he’s stuck in a meeting.’ She pulls back a curl of blonde hair behind her ear.
‘Yeah, maybe. Are there any other classes tonight?’ I scratch my head.
‘No, just your one.’
‘Right.’ My voice tails off, collecting my thoughts. ‘Could you call me when he comes? I’ll just be in the classroom with the television.’
‘You want to watch the football, eh?’ Laura smiles.
‘Yeah, it’s the UEFA Cup final tonight.’ I grin back.
‘Força Porto!’ she lightly punches the air.
‘I didn’t know you liked football.’
‘Everyone loves football in Portugal.’ She smiles and shows me her Porto Football Club coffee mug.
I hurry down the corridor into the other classroom. On the table are a Shrek DVD and a baseball cap, and in the wastepaper bin a McDonald’s Happy Meal carton – evidence that the manager and the head of studies were here earlier. I reach up to switch on the television. First, there’s a fuzzy, grainy image, then the football comes on. The volume is high.
‘Deco toma la bola de volea pero su tiro se va abierto,’ the commentator yells, as Deco volleys the ball wide of the Celtic goal.
I grab the remote control from the table and turn it down. Then, I take a chair, turn it round so it faces the television and sit down.
I can’t believe my luck. All I need now is a bifana steak sandwich and a bottle of Super Bock!
‘What’s the score?’ Laura pokes her head round the door.
‘Sorry?’ she frowns.
‘Ah!’ she says, coming into the classroom. ‘Which team is Porto?’
‘I thought you said you supported them. Porto are wearing the blue-and-white striped shirts and Celtic are in green and white.’
Just then, Deco chips the ball to Alenichev, who volleys it from ten yards out; the goalkeeper parries the shot, but Derlei reacts quickest, slamming the ball into the net.
‘Derelei!’ the commentator yells. ‘Goooool!’ he continues for about half a minute.
‘Goooool!’ Laura joins in with her arms in the air. ‘Força Porto!’
She makes circular motions with her hands as if she were a Hawaiian dancer.
‘I don’t believe it!’ I say with my head in my hands. ‘Just before half-time as well.’
Derlei jumps over the Carlsberg advertising hoarding and runs behind the goal with his arms out-stretched, his face beaming. The Seville stadium becomes a sea of blue and white, bleached by the floodlights. The fans jump up and down and hug each other.
‘English teams are rubbish! English teams are rubbish!’ Laura sings like a child.
‘Celtic aren’t English, they’re Scottish.’
‘I didn’t know you were Scottish?’
‘I’m not, but –’
‘So why do you want Celtic to win?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, scratching my head. ‘I just do. Anyway, I like their manager, Martin O’Neil. Is that the phone ringing by the way?’
‘Oh merda!’ Laura says, and runs out the room.
To be honest, I’m not sure who I want to win. I secretly like Porto – especially Deco, their creative midfielder. And I like their manager too – Mourinho. He’s so arrogant that he reminds me of Brian Clough, one of the best English football managers of his time. But, I still find myself supporting Celtic – maybe I do have Scottish blood.
In the second half, Celtic start brightly. Agathe crosses the ball into the penalty area from the right-hand side, and Larsson heads the ball, looping into the far corner of the goal.
‘Goooool!’ the commentator yells, a bit shorter this time.
‘Yes!’ I shout a little too loudly.
This time the stadium becomes a sea of green and white. There are scarves, flags – Scottish and Irish, big green hats.
‘What’s happened?’ Laura asks, running into the classroom.
‘Celtic have equalised! ‘It’s one-one!’
This is confirmed by the action replay: the ball slowly hitting the bottom of the post and going into the net.
Then five minutes later, Deco avoids a tackle, cleverly slips the ball to Alenichev, who beats the goalkeeper from close range.
‘Alenichev!’ the commentator yells. ‘Goooool!’
‘Goooool!’ Laura mimics the commentator. This goes on for a full minute.
‘I don’t believe it. Every time you come into the room, Porto score.’
Laura laughs, but suddenly her face changes: ‘Was that the intercom?’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘I’ll just check and see,’ she says, and leaves the room.
Celtic have a corner.
Thompson crosses the ball into the penalty area, and Larsson, unmarked, powerfully heads the ball into the net.
‘Larsson!’ yells the commentator. ‘Goooool!’
The crowd erupts in the stadium.
‘Get in there!’ I shout, fist pumping the air.
I hear something above the din.
It must be Laura.
I crane my neck round the classroom door. Laura trots down the corridor, holding her beige cardigan together, her shoes making a light clapping sound on the vinyl tiles.
‘What’s wrong?’ I frown.
‘It’s your student,’ she says, slightly out of breath. ‘He’s just called on the intercom, and he’s coming up right now.’
‘What?’ I reply, incredulous. ‘But it’s quarter past nine! What am I supposed to do – teach him for fifteen minutes?’
She nods sympathetically, then pauses for a moment. ‘I know,’ she whispers. ‘I’ll tell him you’ve already gone.’
‘What? You can’t do that!’ I say in a low voice, a little tempted by the idea.
‘Yes, we can,’ she says. ‘You’re only supposed to wait half an hour for a student, and then you can go.’
‘Really?’ My voice rises up nearly into a falsetto. ‘But, he’s coming up now and he’ll see me.’
‘Go and hide in there.’ She persists, pointing to the classroom with the television.
‘Hide?’ I protest, knowing this will be a new low for me.
‘Come on, quickly,’ she says. ‘Then we can both go home early.’
I half-reluctantly go into the classroom and turn off the television.
I don’t believe it – hiding from a student, so I don’t have to teach them. What depths have I sunk to?
I try not to make a sound and find myself cowering behind the classroom door, my breathing shallow.
What if he finds out? I fret. It would be so embarrassing!
‘Boa tarde, Laura.’
It’s my student. Hearing his voice makes me feel even worse.
‘Boa tarde, senhor. Desculpe mas…’
I can just about hear Laura apologising to my student, and I cringe with guilt. I bet he knows I’m here hiding from him. I’ll never be able to look him in the eye again!
I catch my reflection in the glass panel of the door; my teeth clenched together as
if I’d just dropped a precious vase on the floor.
The voices stop. But I daren’t move.
What’s going on?
I wait in silence; it’s almost deafening. My stomach is clenched, my mouth is dry; my heart beats so fast.
‘Boo!’ Laura pokes her head through the classroom door.
‘Oh!’ I jump. ‘You gave me a fright.’
Laura starts laughing.
‘Very funny.’ I frown. ‘So what did he say?’
‘Nothing much,’ she replies. ‘But, he did seem a little disappointed, though.’
‘Oh well,’ I say, feeling a pang of apprehension, but that soon goes as I turn the television back on to see if the match has gone into extra time.