The amah answers the door, lets in the young man with straw-coloured hair, a mustard polo, oatmeal slacks and ox-blood loafers.
‘Bonjour’, he says, and in place of raising a hat, for he hasn’t one, he lifts and lowers the wire-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of a Roman nose and announces: ‘I am Monsieur Michel, ze Franch teacher.’
The Pinay smiles, but not with her eyes, and she leads him through to the sitting room, attributing his failure to leave his shoes in the hall to the same Gallic eccentricity that styled his hair, not knowing, the loafers being plastic, their removal would be the unleashing of hell, for the young man has walked here from Central and built up a sweat in the act.
He is seated at the dining table, a hexagon of glass on marble legs, the whole wrapped in protecting plastic which invites a sucking condensation to form about his resting forearms and the steaming tea in a glass brought through to him, as now are the children by their mother. His pupils are eleven and six and with parents will soon be Montreal-bound, as many families are in the run-up to Hong Kong’s handover. Greetings are exchanged in English and the mother asks him, ‘are you France?’
The charade, the fraud, is the idea of Mrs C.*, ruthless and unshakeable in the recruitment and placement of language tutors: more impressario than entrepreneur; more casting agent than… not.
‘But you look French!’ she reasons with me (for it is me) on the phone I shouldn’t have answered, her conviction all the more audacious for her not yet having set eyes on me. Half-flattered, half-intrigued and half-starved through lack of funds, I agree to the job, and my puppet-master gives me the address in Fortress Hill.
My only outlay is these specs from a stall on Nathan Road. Clear glass, round, with the magical power to transform whosoever dons them into a more self-deluded loon.
‘My muzzer is Franch,’ I ad-lib in response to this mother’s unreasonable interrogation, ‘and my fazzer is Eengleesh’: thereby explaining why I speak this way. ‘Zees combination eez perfect – parfait – for le Canada, n’est-ce pas?’
And the hour ensues, the greater part passed in the choosing of a French name for the daughter; an exercise requiring little or no input from her, with her studious ways and her good grasp of French grammar, it being more of a meditative effort on my part, which I observe would be better effected with a bowl of whatever the amah’s preparing.
Claudette decided and the chicken dish devoured, the lesson concludes with a test of animals’ names, for which we use the picture book brought by her terrified brother.
Chien. Chat. Souris. And the sourir that she (Claudette/Nancy) sourits is signal enough she’s been onto me from the start, has seen right through my prescriptionless lenses. And so for her too-clever troubles I point to a moose, and she’s stumped.
I am not invited back and my fifty bucks comes with a chiding from Mrs C.; ‘why you say you were half English?’ she demands. ‘Now I must find total French person.’
I wish her bonne chance with that, but I’m not off the hook. There’s a pause, it’s her thinking, and then comes, ‘You wear false beard! Try again!’
Somehere today in Quebec, I like to think there’s a thirty-something Chinese woman, at the weekend cabin, and she’s calling to her kids: ‘Regardez, les enfants! Une Vache Magique!’
* A woman whose surname found in translation a match with her lack of brevity in conversation, or in her persuasive bargaining, and which I’ll withhold on the chance she’s still at it – even after such a long, long time.
© Copyright, Etienne Michel et ‘Feesher’ Lane, 2012.